New Delhi: Boys just eat grape and stop Girl Rape,” read one of the many fluorescent banners at Asia’s first successful SlutWalk held in New Delhi on Sunday. While poesy wasn’t one of its strong points, the logistics of the event—conceived by students of Delhi University’s Kamla Nehru College—were flawless.
The event’s chief organizer, 19-year-old Umang Sabharwal, was inspired by the first SlutWalk held in Toronto in April, when women took to the streets in protest against the use of the word slut. A police officer addressing students of the York University on safety norms had said “women should avoid dressing up as sluts in order to not be victimized”. The movement went viral, with marches in Amsterdam, São Paulo, Seattle and Sydney. In all of these satellite events, participants were encouraged to dress as they pleased. And lingerie and lace grabbed headlines for the larger cause of sexual stereotyping and violence against women.
Sabharwal set up a Facebook page for a similar protest march in Delhi a few months ago, and around 2,100 people pledged their presence.
At 10am on Sunday, in Delhi’s protest hotbed, Jantar Mantar Road, things weren’t looking as good as promised. The walk was to start in half an hour but the crowd largely comprised irate television media and volunteers. And much to the chagrin of cameramen looking for “sexy” footage, the volunteers were dressed conservatively in loose-fitting T-Shirts with the logo, “SlutWalk arthaat Besharmi Morcha 2011”, printed across.
Provoking change: (Above) Participants hold placards at the SlutWalk held in New Delhi on Sunday; (below) women security guards cordon marchers.
“There are no celebrities here, only college students. Why are we here on a Sunday morning?” one cameraman remarked. And as protesters came trickling in, it was clear that there would be no mini-skirts, bras or red wigs.
Before the march took off, Sabharwal took to a makeshift platform to remind those gathered about the peaceful nature of the march. There was to be no smoking, no drinking, no profanities uttered and no vandalism. She needn’t have bothered. Despite the media scrutiny, and the number of policemen employed to cordon the marchers because of threats from a Hindutva right-wing group, the quietness of the march was bewildering.
Midway through the walk, marchers even climbed onto the footpath in a matter of minutes, when asked to do so by volunteers. Not far away, men from the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association who were on a hunger strike, looked like they could very well be part of what was turning out to be a very vanilla SlutWalk.
Things were so staid that Sunny Dhamija, who owns a beverage stall in the vicinity, had to ask if it really was the besharm kapdo wala morcha (the vulgar clothes’ march) or if there had been a change in schedule. Dhamija, who says he witnesses three to four protests a day given his stall’s location, supported the SlutWalk cause. He summarized it as: “Women shouldn’t be judged by their clothes, but by their character.”
To the organizers’ credit, they had made it clear that this would be a SlutWalk “with a difference”. The event’s official website, www.besharmimorcha.in, reasons that in India, not every one is aware of the term “slut”, its usage and implications. Thus, participants were encouraged to wear what they wear on the streets; what they wear every day; what they, nevertheless, are victimized in.
What this meant was that the only women who were even mildly outrageous were expats or foreign correspondents, who in turn, were being stalked for media bytes. Some college girls actually came escorted by their brothers or fathers, who stood dutifully on the pavement, while their wards spoke of reclaiming their space and standing up against abuse.
What had prompted the “difference” was the furore against the name SlutWalk when the event was first announced. Sabharwal and her organizing committee had appended “Besharmi Morcha” to the event’s title under mounting pressure. They even had to shift the event dates from June to July to address these concerns, and ensure adequate police protection forthe event.
For Drishti Goyal, an 18- year-old from Laxmi Nagar, this name change was crucial. Goyal, dressed in a long kurta and jeans, says she wouldn’t have participated if the event was called SlutWalk.
“I didn’t know what it meant,” she explains.
Goyal was convinced the event was safe to attend only after Sabharwal and her team conducted talks and street plays to explain what it was go ing to be about. Speaking to media before the event, Sabharwal says her team went around city colleges as well as lower-income group areas such as Delhi’s Govindpuri slum to encourage women from all kinds of background to attend.
The absurdity of holding an event called SlutWalk in a city where a majority of its women wouldn’t know what it means, was highlighted by one particular event. Just as the march started off, a young woman raised her shirt for her friend to write a slogan on her belly. Seeing this, a couple of young male volunteers scurried about wildly, shouting, “Obscenity alert!” They managed to block the woman in question from press photographers while asking her to button up.
The walk had its fair share of radicals. Karan Chaudhary, 22, a third-year law student from Delhi University, was there because his friends and sisters have been harassed at some point. As a law student, he was there to campaign for a change in legal language. “When a woman is molested, lawyers and journalists should be able to say that she is molested...and not that ‘her modesty was outraged’,” he says, reasoning that the way crime against women is framed can affect its punishment. There were also people who one would think had little to do with a protest for women’s safety in India. Like Jonathan Gingerish, a doctoral student of philosophy from the University of California-Los Angeles, who was there to “help support the attempt to restructure sexual power in India”.
The success of the event for now lies in its numbers. The organizer’s count was 1,000, though a more conservative estimate would be 700-800. It is a triumph also that the event was held in Delhi, which has the highest instances of rape cases in the country (489 cases were reported in 2010). A similar event had been planned on 17 July in Bhopal but that had been a washout because of poor attendance. The seemingly provocative event has raised a range of contentious issues, including class differences and feminist priorities, ever since it was announced.
By noon, the walk had ended and the crowd had mostly dispersed, or gravitated towards ice cream and bread pakora stalls. Marchers were exchanging their banners with slogans such as soch badal, kapde nahi (change your thoughts, not your clothes) and “Proud to be shameless”.
There were some talks of a walk next year, but nothing concrete was announced. There was no petition signed either.
But what might be SlutWalk’s greatest achievement is the debate it opened up. Who knows, maybe next year, Indian women won’t have to come dressed in loose T-shirts and kurtas to avoid coming across as the sluts who took part in SlutWalk.