The dilemmas of a slutwalk in India

The slutwalk is coming to Delhi. But does the movement need to be radically altered for India?

Nandini Ramachandran June 09, 2011 16:27:22 IST
The dilemmas of a slutwalk in India

Sometimes, granted a platform, one feels obliged to speak. To venture forth an opinion, even where no new one exists. To state the obvious for the benefit of the record. It was this impulse that compelled me to write this post, for I am a woman and we appear to be under attack. Yet again. I planned to tell you today, to deepen our loss, about the Elixir of Life. Instead we shall have to settle for #slutwalk and the unfortunate Naipaul.

To summarise the controversy, Delhi society recently decided to emulate the “global phemonenon” of the slutwalk by scheduling one for June 25th. A slutwalk, for the uninitiated, is a version of the battle the NGO BlankNoise has been waging on urban Indian streets for a decade. It is a bid to reclaim the streets for women, a protest in which women walk the streets to reclaim their dignity. The idea is to mobilise women that are cut off from political life— because of privilege, diffidence, or the general chaos of daily life.

If we come together, 'slutwalkers' believe, whether we wear salwar-kameez or skirt suits, we can shame men into accepting our right to exist alongside them on the streets and in our homes and offices.  If we no longer accept that who we are is determined by what we wear, perhaps we can alter the way society segments its women into whores, mothers, or martyrs. If we face off the eve-teasers, the hooligans, and the bullies, maybe we will scare away the rapists by undermining their social support.  Most of all, it is a movement that wants us to stop blaming the victims of violence. To retreat into legal jargon, rape is a crime with no contributory negligence in play.

The dilemmas of a slutwalk in India

The Slutwalk in Melbourne, Australia. Scott Barbour/Getty Images

That’s the idea. It is a worthy one, if a bit pie-in-the-sky, and the merest hint of it predictably generated a blizzard of crass jokes and puerile arguments amidst the twitterati.  How could Indian women, harassed at every corner, possibly want to do something about it? Which sane person would wander about Mehrauli in clothes fit for Khan Market? It was all spectacle and dazzle, the hive mind of twitter concluded, conjured up by South Delhi fashionistas who didn’t know how lucky they were to be fed and alive. All they were doing was ‘inciting violence and voyeurism’. What did they know about the problems of the Real Indian Woman anyway?

About the same time, VS Naipaul took up the cause of misogyny in the world of High Literature with typically smug sadism.  On the whole, it wasn't a good week to be an Indian, a woman, or a writer. To my infinite misery, I am all three.

For the record, thus: I think women should wear anything their whimsy dictates. I further think that any violence that happens to them will be never because of what they were wearing. A woman in a sari is as vulnerable to predatory men as one in a bikini. To argue otherwise is to suggest that women who are foolish enough to be on the street past dusk ought to be raped. Just to, you know, teach them their place. From there it is a slippery slope indeed to the logic of purdah, and that will be the death of two centuries of Indian feminism.

The real question boils down to something the novelist Dorothy Sayers once asked: Are Women Human? All we ask, to reiterate her claim, is to be human individuals, however peculiar and unexpected. It is this claim that so annoys the slut-haters of Twitter. They enjoy pigeonholing their women, even as they assert themselves as unique and pungent observers of humanity. Let us unite in borrowing her rapier while contemplating this breed of man:

“If he chooses (as he chose) to deck himself like a peacock in mating season, that is his right; if he prefers (as he does today) to affront the eye with drab colour and ridiculous outline, that is his convenience. Man dresses as he chooses, Woman to please him; and if Woman says she ever does otherwise, he knows better, for she isn't human, and may not give evidence on her own behalf.

Perhaps no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of virility; if everything he wore, said, or did had to be justified by reference to female approval… If the centre of his dress-consciousness were the cod-piece, his education directed to making him a spirited lover and meek paterfamilias; his interests held to be natural only insofar as they are sexual. If from school and lecture-room, press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a shrill and scolding voice, bidding him to remember his biological function. If he were vexed by continual advice how to add a rough male touch to his typing, how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how to combine chemical research with seduction… and at dinner parties he hears the wheedling, unctuous, predatory female voice demand: “And why should you trouble your handsome little head about politics?”.

The dilemmas of a slutwalk in India

In India,the slutwalk is likely to be elite and, worse, alienating. Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Now, to equivocate. I don’t think slutwalk is the best medium for this message. As Peter Griffin tweeted, the irony of this twitter twaddle is the number of Delhi men that will think the 'sluts' were laid on for their benefit. In trying to do one thing, like all romantics, the slutwalkers might achieve its opposite. This would be, to put it mildly, a tragedy.

The event is predicated upon a community of women coming together to fight for their voice. In the West, where the battle over the trouser was won decades ago, this might be feasible. In India, it is likely to be elite and, worse, alienating. Indian feminism has many hurdles before it, none more pressing than the need to build bridges between our many varieties of women. Anything that can be used to paint us into a corner — to caricature us into shrill jhola-carrying liberals— should arouse our suspicion.

My fear, for all that I am happy to be considered a strident slut, is that campaigning on our right to wear jeans isn’t worth this price.  Clothes may make a man, but they will never make a woman. To borrow Ms. Sayers’ wisdom once more:

“It is a mark of all movements, however well-intentioned, that their pioneers tend, by much lashing of themselves into excitement, to lose sight of the obvious.. What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs. This has been the very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women— and it the error into which feminist women are, perhaps, a little inclined to fall about themselves.”

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