Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Slutwalk: Walk of Shame or McFeminism?

i'm going to reproduce this piece by kamayani sharma, which a facebook friend directed me to. i think it raises an interesting perspective on slutwalk in the indian context, and how well that protest translates from toronto to delhi. the comments on the facebook page are worth reading as well.

i don't agree with everything in the piece (the title of the piece particularly annoys me, though i've reproduced it), but the class issues are particularly relevant. and i 'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that the only way for women's protest to get mass media attention these days is if there is sexualisation involved in some way. would the slutwalk have received so much attention if, as ms sharma points out, women were to wear the actual clothes they were wearing when raped or assaulted? i know that was one of the points underlying slutwalk - that it doesn't actually matter what you wear, because your choice of clothing isn't going to make you safe or put you in danger. what i mean is that the attention these events received was because of the sexualisation, and that same message packaged in a way that didn't have overt sexualisation would probably have been ignored. and it bothers me that the best way for women to get attention is still through sexualisation. but maybe that's just me.

anyway, enough from me. here is ms sharma:

The common Indian slut is a girl who has had the audacity to have had consensual sex and the naiveté to expect nobody to judge her for it. Her natural habitat is some tree-decorated borough in a metropolis, her upbringing privileged and her lifestyle equipped with all the trappings of bourgeois affluence – a good education and considerable freedom and support to do what she wants. The common Indian slut, therefore, is not so common. She is part of a teeny tiny minority of women in this country who can hardly be regarded as representative of the Indian woman and her ordeals. Yet, Slutwalk or Besharmi Morcha is exactly that – an attempt to gloss over the range and depth of oppression that Indian women have to put up with in order to lionize a sudden upper middle-class urge to do something...anything.

It took mass action in Toronto earlier this year to galvanize Delhi’s public into convening and protesting, clearly indicating that the march is really being led by people who are heavily influenced by the “Western” media. Now, I am not suggesting that just because this rally was organised by a certain class or set, it is to be dismissed. It’s because this rally constitutes only that certain class and set, that its political and intellectual commitments appear wobbly. It is not reverse-classism to denounce SlutWalk as the act of well-meaning but ultimately ill-read girls for whom public life is a series of strolls from a metro station to a waiting car, usually in a gaggle. The Facebook group for the event had women saying things such as, “I believe the greatest freedom is the freedom to wear what I want.” The problem with a statement like this is that smacks of a sociocultural advantage that very few women in India can even dream of, much less demand. The freedom to wear what you want is all very well but what about the freedom to even be on the streets wearing what you want?

In an article I recently read, Annie Zaidi touched upon something that I remember saying to a friend when I first read about the SlutWalk. The word ‘slut’ itself is such an endemic term; who uses it and who gets called it? Certainly not sex workers and punters; or blue collar migrant labourers from rural regions stuck in a time warp where women must still behave according to medieval gender roles or risk abuse worse than being called names; or the lower middle class city dwellers who propel their ascent by keeping orthodoxy towards their females well-oiled, if somewhat disguised by a patina of status production activities like ‘education’. So who? It’s rich kids who can be openly promiscuous without any real repercussions that do the slutting and the slut-shaming. Of course, that doesn’t make the term less problematic in this context either since it still targets only the girls and has troubling implications for the potential to construct healthy sex-positive self-images among young ladies. BUT. That is not the point. The point is that the term ‘slut’ has such a supremely restricted role that it cannot be appropriated as a tagline for any truly feminist argument against the status quo. We cannot ‘take back’ a term that was never ours to begin with but is a verbal graft that runs out of meaning beyond the confines of the microscopic group of Indians who would use it.

Women in India are not harassed for being ‘sluts’, they are harassed for being ‘women’. Period.

Their sexual history is irrelevant, their clothes don’t matter. The fact that they dare be in a place that only men should be in – that’s the problem. Sexual crimes are always about power, about who is in charge. Indian men feel increasingly emasculated and threatened when they see women in areas previously dominated by them and in their struggle to re-establish authority, they resort to the violence of sexual assault, whether it’s verbal or physical. In the minds of most Indian men, there is no such thing as ‘slut = sexually free woman’. There is such a thing as ‘free woman = target for sexual assault’.

The fight to be out on the streets is really what this protest should be about. Out on the streets whenever we want, wherever we want and yes, wearing whatever the hell we like. This is a tussle for public space – the Indian male’s sense of entitlement and the Indian female’s sense of deprivation – against the interplay of slowly weakening traditions and reactionary backlashes occurring in the conflicts between the urban and the rural, the poor and the rich, the heterosexual and the homosexual, the man and the woman. This is about the patriarchal codes that control our commons and civic spaces. This is a battle for the right to walk unmolested through any strip of land within the Indian border. This is about equality. This is about all women, from prostitutes to rag pickers to factory workers to university students, having the liberty to go about their business when and how they see fit. How is that possible when this spectrum of concerns has been reduced to pseudo-political pageantry meant to appease “good girls from good families”?

SlutWalk is an annoying, antifeminist paradox. It is recreational hacktivism of the kind which topples over the very ideas that it is meant to uphold, by tearing down feminism (from Toronto to Delhi) and pandering to ignorant notions of patriarchy-friendly (!) ‘gender equity’. It packages serious issues that Indian feminism has been dealing with for years into a designer occasion that plays right into all the conventions and clichés that femininity worldwide is expected to conform to, challenging nothing and confirming chauvinist male attitudes by reassuring them that all the ‘sluts’ *giggle* really want is the licence to wear really tiny skirts and won’t they allow that pwetty please?

Something far more sensible and sensitive is Take Back The Night, wherein people stay out all night at a candlelight vigil to talk about their experiences and come up with safety solutions, or to a lesser degree Blank Noise’s ‘I Never Asked For It’ campaign which had women from all over the country send in the clothes they were wearing at the time of assault (unsurprisingly, full sleeved salwar-kameezes made the cut thus proving the concern about ‘wearing what I want’ redundant) and arranged a clothes drive on one of Bangalore’s busiest roads. Both these campaigns are inclusive and interactive; they enable members of communities, castes and classes across a very wide scope of locations to participate in constructive and meaningful dialogue and improve their society’s understanding of feminism and gender violence outside the home.

What does SlutWalk do? Provide weekend entertainment for some advantaged young women like politics in a Happy Meal?

19 comments:

Joanna said...

Plenty of people wore the clothes that they were raped in. There were a lot of people in pyjamas at the Wellington march.

Anonymous said...

What does SlutWalk do? Provide weekend entertainment for some advantaged young women like politics in a Happy Meal?

I find this comment offensive. And I did attent SlutWalk wearing the clothes I was raped in. It was all kinds of triggering, especially explaining to a young man why I was wearing what I was wearing.

It was not 'weekend entertainment' - it was an opportunity to publicise an issue that gets swept under the carpet or shouted down on a regular basis, in the company of others instead of the usual way, being the one person who says "Oi, enough with the victim blaming."

I understand and agree with the points regarding the inherent privilege of SlutWalk, but can we please stop with the assumption that participants are all doing it for kicks and playing dressups?

~Tats

stargazer said...

tats, yes, i agree with your last sentence. i think that's where i found the piece problematic. along with the title and the "anti-feminism". but i did think the other points were worth putting the post up. it's mostly the cultural translation of the event (and the inherent problems with that) which i thought were useful to raise. i'm sorry if this post was triggering as well.

joanna, i'm sure they did. i guess it wasn't set-up that way though. actually "set-up" isn't the right word, but i have to rush off. i'll think about it some more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks stargazer. No, the post wasn't triggering, I'm just getting annoyed at the criticism of SlutWalk becoming a form of erasure in itself. For some women, attending is a very personal decision that requires surmounting significant psychological barriers in order to make a point.

To have that erased as the frippery of the privileged is frustrating and hurtful, because it dismisses the experiences of women who have been raped despite their privilege and for whom SlutWalk is not just a lark.

~Tats

stargazer said...

ok, i have just a minute here, but the word i was thinking of was "framing". i think i would have been much more inclined to attend if the focus was around "the clothes you were raped/assaulted in", because that feels like something i can relate to. of course i realise that framing won't appeal to everyone, and doesn't deal with the actual issue of the original phrase used by the toronto police officer about dressing like sluts.

tats, just one other point i wanted to make. i suspect that the writer is talking about privileged women in india rather than in the west. i think part of her frustration might be that these women are in a position to do a lot more around the injustices that writer speaks of, and this adopted western protest isn't really going to do anything for the vast majority of indian women.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree, and can definitely understand the points she makes regarding cultural translation to Delhi.

I just saw that last remark about 'weekend entertainment' and went straw/camel.

~Tats

goodgravey said...

Joanna - I told some of my friends about that - about how some women wore pyjamas, others business suits, because that was what they wore when they were raped. They were amazed.

I in turn was amazed at their amazement. That people I know really think that rape is some isolated incident that only happens to certain people.

I've been following the Delhi slutwalk debate on Twitter, particularly after following a blogger who goes by the handle Vidyut. I was intrigued by the cultural differences. And how the definition of besharma or besharmi seems to differ slightly from our "slut", but both are smeared with disgrace and "badness".

I spent a fair amount of time reading every English-language tweet on the #slutwalk twitter feed (and used a translator on some of the Hindi posts).

Vidyut was particularly strong on the point of reclaiming besharmi. That however the word is used, they will not be shamed because of any societal attitude as to how they should be.

And there was a fair bit of talk about privilege - as there has here in New Zealand about it being a walk for the those privileged enough to be able to. However, what I witnessed on the walk - the number of people (men, women, intersex, heterosexual, LGBT) in tears, needing to be supported and hugged - at that moment there wasn't a whole lot of privilege going on.

And yes - the HappyMeal comment is insulting even to me - at the height of privilege. But I think it was a post worthy of repeating.

Good stuff stargazer.

katy said...

There's lots of discussion in that piece about the term "slut" but was this even a key aspect of the Delhi march? It might have been inspired by the other international protests but thought that it was renamed/framed Besharmi Morcha ("shameless protest"). To ignorant me this sounds quite inclusive, would be interested to hear more about this.

stargazer said...

the best translation of "besharmi" would be "immodest". but it has a stronger impact in than the english word, because of the cultural context of immodesty being such a terrible thing. so in that sense, i guess it does parallel the framing of slutwalk. the actual transalation of slut would be "randi", which would not have gone down well at all - again because of context & where the culture is at. so "besharmi" is definitely a compromise or a toning down of the framing.

my sense is (as an outsider really, because i haven't visited for several years & haven't ever lived there since i was a toddler) that the majority of indian women aren't really interested in fighting the battle for "i can have sex with whom i want, and with how ever many partners i want; you don't get to judge me". they're more interested in wanting is to be safe from assault. which is possbily why they toned it down.

to me, the point the author is making is that for the majority of women, the message they want to get across is "i just want to be able to go out when i want, without fear of being harassed, assaulted or raped" rather than "i should be able to wear what i like". this is where the cultural context & the privilege issues become more important.

of course this is just one woman's perspective. unlike goodgravey, i haven't been following this closely on twitter or anything. so i don't know how much traction this is getting in delhi, or the rest of india.

Kamayani said...

Good to know that people are responding to this. I didn't mean to annoy anyone or belittle their participation in the Slut Walk or their concerns regarding gender violence in general. I am sympathetic to anyone who did wear what they were assaulted in and felt empowered by it, my intention was not to denigrate that feeling.

However, the overarching subject contentment that defined this protest comes from a very limited pool of women who are in a much better place in society than most of the women facing the real perils and dangers of attack. At no point do I wish to imply that upper middle-class girls don't live in fear of being raped. I am an upper middle-class girl and live in fear of assault like many others. But my point is that what is fuelling this sort of protest is not enough. It's not igneous enough. It does not embrace as much. It falls short of the kind of movement we need to bring about lasting change and PRETENDING that this is that movement is what is really getting my goat.

I'm sure this is not weekend entertainment for some of the people. But the fact remains that this is too much of a party for the majority of participants. And even if you don't agree with that, there's just no getting around the fact that this is ultimately deferential enough to patriarchy to take the sting out of its supposed rancour against "mankind" and whatnot.

Sorry if I've offended anyone. I stand by everything I've written.

Kamayani said...

*subjectIVE

Acid Queen said...

the majority of indian women aren't really interested in fighting the battle for "i can have sex with whom i want, and with how ever many partners i want; you don't get to judge me".

Indian women don't want this, or they want it but just don't want to say so?

stargazer said...

kamayani, thanx for commenting here. i don't believe that your comments are appropriate for the protests that happened in nz - they certainly weren't any kind of a party here, and many of the people who took part have been through some terrible experiences. if the atmosphere in delhi was something different, then your comment might be appropriate for that situation, but it certainly isn't fair to nz women and their allies who took part. i personally apologise to women here who are offended by that belittling, and i think kamayani that you probably don't have enough information of the marches in nz to make that kind of judgement.

in the indian context, i can understand a fair amount of the frustration you feel in relation to the delhi protest being able to cause any change for indian women.

AQ, i'm again failing to see how your contribution adds to the discussion. if they don't want to say so or think that's not a battle they want to take on just now, that's entirely up to them.

i'm sorry to be late with this comment, but i've spent the day thinking about what i wanted to say, and it was important to me to get it right.

Deborah said...

In some ways it was a bit of a party here, in the sense that people were gathering and celebrating their strength and the opportunity to send a message. But on the march I was on, I saw young women and old, grandmothers and mothers and daughters, transwomen, many men marching in support, middle aged women like me dressed in very conservative clothes.

What I didn't see was any women wearing religious garb, such as habits or hijab. That's something to work on for next time, either as an alternative gathering, or by developing a better narrative that is all about women being safe from sexual assault no matter they are wearing.

As far as I can tell, the marches in places like Sydney and Melbourne were very like the marches in New Zealand, but I'd be reluctant to generalise past that.

One thing I loved about the NZ marches is the grassroots activism that is inspiring a new upswelling of feminism. That's so positive. And it's not just words and politics: some of the new younger feminists are doing some fabulous work. For example, the Wellington Young Feminists Collective works hard in support of Rape Crisis. Fantastic.

Long story short: as anjum says, there's a lot of cultural context in the marches.

Kamayani said...

@stargazer - you're absolutely correct - i certainly have no right to be taking about the NZ marches, which occur in such a wildly different social context that it baffles me that i got the response i did.

i was speaking so specifically about delhi that i am surprised now, then, that anybody got offended. they really don't have much information or right to be feeling outraged about the delhi slutwalk being called out on what it is.

NZFemme said...

It was unclear to me Khamayani, that you were speaking specifically to the Delhi Slutwalk. (Thanks for clarifiying) Possibly because the author of the original piece hasn't confined her critique soley to the Delhi walk:

"...SlutWalk is an annoying, antifeminist paradox. It is recreational hacktivism of the kind which topples over the very ideas that it is meant to uphold, by tearing down feminism (from Toronto to Delhi) and pandering to ignorant notions of patriarchy-friendly (!) ‘gender equity’. It packages serious issues that Indian feminism has been dealing with for years into a designer occasion that plays right into all the conventions and clichés that femininity worldwide is expected to conform to, challenging nothing and confirming chauvinist male attitudes by reassuring them that all the ‘sluts’ *giggle* really want is the licence to wear really tiny skirts and won’t they allow that pwetty please?..."

This paragraph in particular shows the author critiquing the slut walk protests well beyond the borders of Delhi, hence my initial confusion to your comments.

N. said...

Context makes such a big difference.

I'm in Melbourne and I supported and attended Slutwalk because I figured that the basic anti-victim-blaming message was a worthy one. The name makes me cringe, and the nonsense about taking back the word makes me roll my eyes, but hey, the cause was good.

But it's not something I would participate in if it were held in Pakistan - at least not if it were presented as a 'we can wear what we want, so there' kind of thing. And that's not because I think you should, in principle, get shit for what you wear, but because, as Kamayani points out, there are way more basic issues out there that need to be addressed first. In Pakistan, as in India, this would be the kind of thing that my cohort - the educated, upper middle-class lot - would just lap up because it wouldn't really require much work. Turn up with a couple of banners, look pretty for photos and go home feeling like you've 'made a difference' and 'spoken out'. Meanwhile, you maid has to cover herself in layers of fabric before she'll brave the meagre public transport system where she and other women get assaulted so regularly it doesn't even make the news.

In the West, despite the salacious coverage much of the mainstream media has given Slutwalk, I think it still managed to get through to some people. I think the fact that women and men attended in droves and that so many people told their stories and talked to each other and connected around victim blaming is awesome. And necessary. Because it is definitely one of the conversations our societies need to be having. Not the only one, by any means, but one.

In South Asia, I think these conversations aren't directly relevant yet. Actually, having read what many bloggers of color have had to say, I think that it's not even a matter of east or west but of class and privilege. I have the privilege of being outraged at being called a slut because I live in a world from which I expect a modicum of respect. There are many many women out there, in every country, who do not live in that world.

Acid Queen said...

Stargazer, my comment was an attempt to explore exactly what the desires and motivations of Indian women are in the face of oppression. Too often western commentators make blanket statements about what women in the third world want without examining more deeply the social and cultural pressures that make their behaviour. SO maybe this is a case of that? I genuinely don't know. I wanted to start a discussion on that. Sorry if this is derail.

katy said...

"What I didn't see was any women wearing religious garb, such as habits or hijab. That's something to work on for next time, either as an alternative gathering, or by developing a better narrative that is all about women being safe from sexual assault no matter they are wearing."

As far as I recall there was a bit more diversity in this regard at the Auckland march (speakers and participants). However, the march finished up where the local Syrians have been gathering each weekend to protest the situation in Syria and that made me reflect on whether the gathering would have looked accessible to that group.