What she wears is her business

She will choose her dress code,not they

Sexy clothes don’t mean Yes Proud to be female

The word skimpy was not part of my active vocabulary; it lay inconspicuously in a corner of my word stock. Then suddenly, it began to appear in news reports from different parts of the world, starting with Toronto, Canada. Skimpy means “less than necessary, meagre", and generally refers to clothing. The entry in my paperback dictionary defines skimpy as “(of clothes) short and revealing".

The news reports related to protest marches that started in Canada. The provocation was the comment made by a police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, who said to a group of university students that women should refrain from dressing like “sluts" to avoid being “victimised." Later he apologized, but by then the message had spread, and there were protests all around. The protests were not over the insulting comparison to sluts. They were a rebuttal to the innuendo that women who are skimpily clothed “are asking for it".

The protests were called slutwalks. Slut is a 15th century word, and originally meant slovenly or untidy, and has in modern times become a highly judgemental word, synonymous with words like prostitute, whore, and strumpet. The protesters said they wanted to reclaim the word and appropriate it for themselves.

Slutwalks have singled out rape as the main issue to be resolved in women’s empowerment. Many other major issues are shelved. Gloria Steinem, journalist and political activist, who pioneered the women’s lib movement, identified several other issues of victimization of women, like abortion and female circumcision. India has its problems too, like foeticides, dowry deaths and honour killings. Traditionally decisions in all these cases are made by the men in the family, and women are excluded. Steinem eloquently and passionately advocated the cause of women; her attitude is captured in a famous remark attributed to her: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."

Public protest to highlight such problems is not new. At the 1968 Miss America Pageant, there were protestors who demonstrated against the whole idea of a beauty pageant, which they said resembled a cattle auction. It was here that the myth of bra-burning by the protestors arose, but actually only sundry items including birth control pills, girdles, nylons and bras were tossed into a trash can. Wikipedia says that there is at least one documented instance of bra-burning in Berkeley California, on 2 June 1970.

Prescribing dress codes for women is the prerogative of men in patriarchal societies. The purdah, or the ghunghat, ostensibly provides a screen to protect women from the prurient gaze of men. In rural India, when a woman is widowed, her bangles are smashed and her bindi is removed. Slutwalks want to assert the woman’s freedom to dress as she pleases.

Delhi is getting ready for its slutwalk. The organizer is a teenager, Umang Sabharwal. It is to be known as Besharmi Morcha, and proclaims, “I am not ashamed to be a woman."

The announcement of the event has triggered a debate on the appropriateness of such a rally in an Indian context. Author Shobha De remarked that the adoption of the word slut as a name for the walk is degrading to womanhood. She called it an attention-seeking protest. In any case, the kind of protest planned may not connect with the people of a conservative, traditional society like ours; not much sluttishness will be on display in the Delhi rally. Contrast this with the protests in Canada and the US, where protesters came out dressed in lingerie to assert their right to dress as they please. In a BBC Newsnight interview, Louise Bagshawe, MP, criticized the protest, saying it lionizes promiscuity and mistakes that for empowerment.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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