Slutwalks and the besharmi of it all…

Cambridge dictionary’s defines ‘slut’ as a woman who has sexual relationships with a lot of men without any emotional involvement. Now think of the word ‘slut’ that regularly is used as an abuse. What is wrong if a woman wants to live life this way? Why should she be subjected to such a judgement? Who are the people calling her a slut? Where did the meaning develop? The answers to this question pretty much determine the genesis of the word.

I dislike the word not because of what it denotes but because of the way it is used. The word slut has stopped bothering me now. At the end of the day, it is a choice made by a woman to live life the way she wants to. I hate it that that her personal choice carries along with it so much hate, disgust and humiliation that it makes so many of us cringe. It also makes so many of us be on our toes all the time lest anyone regards us as one. Besides, why should there be pressure on a woman to prove the whole world that she is not a slut? This is just another way of curtailing a woman’s sexuality. There lies a very close association with the so-called sluttishness and then the following justification if she undergoes violence. It is like saying…. Be a slut and violence will follow. So, better toe the line.

Given this context, ‘Slutwalk’ does sound revolutionary. It definitely is. But then I guess it is not for everyone. I also wonder if the idea of ‘Slutwalk’ in India works for me.

Ever since I read about Slutwalks, I have been confused about my stand regarding it. My first reaction was that of discomfort. Discomfort not just with the term but about the idea in general. But then I did find myself agreeing with everything they stood for. Why this discomfort? The answers weren’t easy.

Firstly I thought the campaign just touched the surface of the problem. Also for better or worse consists of only women from an upper middle class English speaking background. Now there is nothing wrong with this target group starting something. But it definitely is problematic when the issue just becomes an issue of that class alone.

So what is slutwalk all about? Where did it start from? Slutwalk has its origin in Canada where a policeman in a speech asked women to not dress like sluts in order to avoid violence.

“Slutwalk might be one of the more provocatively named events of 2011, but that’s the whole point. Founded shortly after a police officer participating in a safety forum at York University’s Osgoode Hall remarked that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” the protest seeks to re-appropriate a term that has been used historically not just to limit and stigmatize female sexuality, but as a rationalization for sexual assault.”

More here and here.

In Canada, the police officer told women to not dress like sluts if they wanted to avoid violence. In India, people tell us to dress ‘decently’ in order to avoid molestation and rape. Dressing indecently doesn’t always mean dressing like a slut. Dressing like a slut comes much later. It can also mean pushing the boundaries of being a good girl, just a bit. So, why is this important? This is important because of the major difference in the way the word ‘slut’ —in all its regional variations—is used in India and in other countries.

It is not when you are dressed as a slut that you are molested or raped. “Good girls” from “good families” with no trace of dressing like a slut are molested too. School girls wearing uniforms, Muslim girls wearing burkha, women wearing salwar kameez, baggy pants and loose shirts get molested too. Yes, a slut gets molested too, so does a prostitute. There is no discrimination here! So it is not just when you are dressed as a slut that you are molested, you are molested if you are a girl/woman. It is as simple as that! Given this context, the very word ‘slutwalk’ seems very limiting. If the victim were ‘sluts’ alone, then ‘besharmi morcha’ makes so much sense. But since the victims are not sluts alone, what do they plan to do then? How does being besharam help? What is the point of all this ‘besharmi’? The whole thing just seems like a very direct import from the West. As Tamura A. Lomax, a black feminist says in this very well writtenblog post that, the need to want the freedom to dress the way we want is a demand made by women in privileged positions. Indeed, to proudly claim oneself a “slut” (meaning, to boldly and explicitly claim one’s sexual liberty), with little to no socio-political consequence, is (sort of) a privilege—Lomax.

My right to public space in denied to me NOT because I am a slut but because I am a woman. And I want to demand my right to a safe public space as a woman and that includes rights of sluts too. There are many things that are denied to me because I am a woman. So, basically the struggle is to reclaim all my rights as a woman and that encompasses rights of a good girl, rights of a bad girl, and rights of a “slut” among many others. For me the fight is to be treated as a human being. The situation in Canada is considerably different from that in India. If I dare say so, their fights and struggles are not as basic as it is here. Our daily fight is for the world to consider us a HUMAN BEING worthy of living a life. As Lomax says: “This reality, which significantly impacts African American women and girls’ day-to-day experiences, makes it difficult to fight for “slut-hood,” particularly when one is still demanding to be seen as a full-fledged person with innate dignity and worth.”

The thing is, if a girl is molested, she would be advised not to roam out at night alone. Case in point being the Delhi police commissioner who advises women in Delhi not to roam at night all alone. Not always are woman chided for being’ besharam’ (shameless). Is the ‘besharmi morcha’ (a rally of shame) going to address these attitudes or is it just about the freedom to dress the way they like? I am not implying that freedom to dress is trivial. I really wish I could dress the way I want to without having to worry about people, setting and countless other things. But then when one talks about that without factoring in various other social realities, the whole exercise just seems like a blind import from the West without contextualization. The use of words like sluts, or besharmi would I am afraid alienate a lot of people because not everyone would want to be considered a ‘besharam’ to just walk on the road freely. This is a struggle that is common across womenfolk. But ‘besharmi morcha’ doesn’t seem like addressing that. It is self-defeating if it doesn’t unify women who more or less face the same problem across the society. The bottomline is if your desire (for a safe public space) is alienating women from different classes, then your effort is just pointless.

The main thing with ‘Slutwalks’ is the close connection it has to the way women dress up. Nothing wrong in it. But then in India, slutwalks should go beyond dressing. The point is to crowd streets. The point is to fill up the streets with women. The point is to reclaim the right to public space that has been denied to us. What is the point of dressing in any particular way if a woman doesn’t even enjoy a right to be on a street whenever she wants to be? We need a safe space for a slut, for a burkha clad woman, for a sari clad woman, for a school girl…for everyone.

Oh yes, the girls will get media attention for sure. ‘Sluttishness’ is sexy! Dressing slutty will definitely make for sexy images on page 1 or page 3. It will make for a sexy copy too! But then, what beyond that? Will it address the issue in a deeper way? In my opinion, the issue should be to address issues of street sexual harassment, safety of women in streets, reclaiming public space for women in a holistic way. How do the organisers of the ‘besharmi morcha’ even plan on doing that?

Recent interviews by the organisers have them clarifying again and again that women can dress in whatever clothes they feel like and that there is no pressure to wear anything skimpy. Now what is the point of calling it besharmi morcha? *puzzled*

The campaign (with all its contradictions) is at best a shock raising event. I guess, at the end of the day, even they play a role in a city that is notorious towards women.

Also, NO WOMAN ever asks for it!