July 04, 2011

Of SlutWalks and Stereotypes

Delhi is apparently having a SlutWalk. A city which displays a tendency to treat all women as sluts, regardless of age, attire or figure is apparently having a SlutWalk. Unsurprisingly, the Walk has been at the receiving end of a great deal of flak whether it be from persons who can’t conceive of what would possess women to want to organise a SlutWalk to start off with, or from persons who are avowed feminists and think that a SlutWalk is inappropriate for India.

The first question is, of course: Do we really need to reclaim the word ‘slut’ in the manner contemplated by a SlutWalk? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the question. The attempted reclamation of the word could be deeply problematic, just as the attempted reclamation of the word ‘nigger’, attendant with all its historical and social implications, has been deeply problematic. That being said, the word ‘slut’ is an attention-grabber, particularly in a society which simply does not use the word ‘slut’ in polite conversation. And considering that the whole point of a SlutWalk is to highlight an issue — primarily that women have the right to not to be assaulted regardless of their appearance — perhaps the use of the word is nothing more than good marketing in this context.

After all, more subtle attempts to highlight virtually the same issue, such as the Blank Noise Project have not garnered anywhere near as much publicity. And whether or not one agrees with the use of the word ‘slut’, what is undeniable is that people are talking about SlutWalk — even if only to denigrate it. Considering that it is dialogue which must precede substantive change with regard to any issue, having the event spoken about cannot adversely affect the purpose of the SlutWalk. This is particularly true since the average person, while talking about the problem, would be hard-pressed to assertively opine (in a polite drawing room, at any rate) that women thought of as sluts should be assaulted, regardless of what he or she may think of the SlutWalk event.

And at the end of the day, what matters is not so much debate about the use of the term ‘slut’ in SlutWalk or the propriety of having a SlutWalk in India at all, but raising awareness about the underlying problem. And a problem there certainly is. Clothing is just one aspect of it; possibly the easiest aspect to speak out about. Almost every woman in Delhi will tell you that clothing is not dictated not just by the weather and the occasion, but also by what should ideally be extraneous considerations. The time. The route. The mode of transport. Whether or not one is accompanied by a man. The destination.

Most of it is common sense. If you plan to travel into central Delhi in an auto for dinner, you would be well-advised not to wear a skirt. Trousers would probably work, but that would be as ‘modern’ as you would be able to get. Unless you were willing to brave the looks your attire would likely get you from men, and not just arbitrary men on the street.

But if you were travelling via/into the lonelier parts of Noida, you’d probably be best off in a salwaar kameez complete with a dupatta. It wouldn’t matter if your ultimate destination was a 5 Star hotel. The aim would be to reach in one piece, and get back just as safely. And it is simply common sense to do what you can to realise that aim.

To spend a considerable amount of time every single day wondering about the ‘safety’ of your clothing is not, by any standards, an insignificant problem. It may not be a problem of the same intensity as bride burning and dowry deaths but that does not mean that it is not a problem on the same scale, the same continuum of issues. Bride burning and dowry deaths — possibly the most often quoted examples of ‘serious issues’ — are primarily a manifestation of the lack of value and respect which Indian society accords to women, as well as a manifestation of its willingness to treat women as commodities which are both easily replaceable and easily interchangeable.

It is this same lack of value and respect which is pivotal in enabling men to judge women, whom they may not even know, whether on the basis of clothes or conduct, and in legitimising violence against women based on such judgments. This is particularly true in the case of those women who are deemed to fall short of a golden standard. A standard which few living women can ever hope to attain partly given that notions of what a ‘good woman’ should be are inextricably linked to mythological figures like Sita, whose virtues are extolled and whose faults, if any, are whispered.

Women are rarely treated as beings who are imperfect but who are also more than the sum of their flaws. Instead they are categorised. Good or bad. Not good and bad. In addition to which the average woman is unlikely to be valued for who she is — individuality barely registers. If valued at all, she is likely to be valued for what she is: a mother, a wife or a daughter. And appearance is undeniably one factor involved in determining the category to which a woman belongs.

It is categories and stereotypes which abound when it comes to violence against women. And it is stereotypes which have also framed much of the criticism against the SlutWalk. The organisers are young, they are reportedly rich, they are privileged, and they supposedly do not understand the nuances of caste and class in Indian society. SlutWalk is non-inclusive (even though its name has been changed to Besharmi Morcha), and it is inappropriate in light of more serious problems. Never mind that those more serious problems belong to the same continuum of problems. And never mind that not every event and not every movement need include everyone all the time — women are not a homogeneous mass, and different women do have different concerns, even if all of those concerns are manifestations of the same or similar underlying problems.

Women in this country undoubtedly face massive problems. Healthcare is appalling. Domestic violence is normal. Workplace harassment is generally brushed under the carpet. Equal pay is virtually unheard of. But these issues do not, in themselves, decrease the validity of other problems faced by any one section of women. And that isn’t even the case as far as SlutWalk is concerned: it is doubtful whether any woman, regardless of socio-economic status, feels entirely safe particularly on Delhi’s streets. It’s another matter that she may feel even more unsafe at home.

And, without commenting specifically on the organisers of SlutWalk, being young, rich and privileged does not disqualify anyone from either speaking out or from understanding the issues involved in any problem. Age does not guarantee wisdom (or even a modicum of common sense) of itself. Also, public perception aside, money and privilege are no protection against abuse. If not anything else, one only needs to look at sex ratios from the census: GK, one of Delhi’s most monied neighbourhoods, has one of the most skewed sex ratios in the country. Being conceived in rich and usually well-educated families is not even enabling many would-be girls to be born. And while those who are born may be familiar with Gucci and Givenchy, that does not mean that they necessarily have the slightest familiarity with either security or stability.

To assume that a woman from a rich and privileged background is unfamiliar with violence is insupportable, and to assume that she is not even capable of understanding the issues involved because of her background is beyond ludicrous.

There is little doubt that violence against women is often legitimised by the use of stereotypes. Wives require ‘correction’. Sluts ask to be raped. Prostitutes cannot be raped. It would appear that it makes little sense to fall back on stereotypes to refuse to validate, or at least constructively acknowledge, an attempt being made to highlight issues of violence against women.

(Of SlutWalks and Stereotypes by Nandita Saikia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 India License. It was first published at ColdSnapdragon.)