You may have seen on the news that the Slut Walk reached Delhi today (if you don't know what the Slut Walk is, click here). I was intrigued at how this very Western phenomenon would take shape in India, so I dragged myself out of bed ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and took myself up to the centre of town.
The event has been given a second name here: the "Besharmi Morcha", which translates as "shame walk" rather than the more confrontational English name. This in itself is rather interesting. There are plenty of words in Hindi that would be a fairly accurate translation of the word "slut", but the organisers clearly felt that for one reason or another they would not be appropriate. I'm not going to go into the rights and wrongs of this here, but there is a really interesting blog post by an Indian writer here, which connects this to the (undeniably true) assertion that the walk in India (as elsewhere) has made by far its biggest impact among the professional, educated elite rather than the poor and marginalised who are the biggest victims of sex-related crime.
Controversies about the event itself aside, there was no doubting the sincerity of the participants (around 300-400 showed up). Interestingly, there were at least as many men as women and I would estimate that the volunteers organising the walk were about three-fifths male. Unlike elsewhere, there was very little flesh on display: the participants wore mainly jeans and t-shirt or salwar kameez, or if they were really daring, shorts, while the organisers wore sober white t-shirts:
This was no surprise: Delhi remains far more conservative than the other cities where walks have taken place, and in any case any outrageously dressed walkers would have distracted from the more important messages about violence against women, a notoriously severe problem here. This point was emphasised when a rather statuesque German lady showed up wearing a sleeveless top with the word "slut" scrawled on her arm. She would have attracted no attention in London, but the Delhi photographers swarmed after her like wasps at a picnic.
Participants had clearly been encouraged to create their own slogans and make their own placards. There were some interesting results, from the pithy:
To the sincere, but maybe slightly wordy:
To the slightly surreal:
To some rather tortuous pop culture references:
While some of the chaps on the walk came over as a little confused...
There were also some very telling placards that highlighted the difference in issues faced by women in India to those in the countries where previous Slut Walks have taken place: I doubt London or Toronto saw any signs reading "Don't Side With Foeticide".
The media seemed unsure of what to make of it. Most of the interviews I saw taking place were with the various (mainly female) foreigners who had shown up, including the aforementioned Teutonic Goddess. One rather camp man with a floppy fringe got a lot of attention by becoming highly animated whenever he had a camera pointing at him. "I have a message for such men," I overheard him say at least three times, "Get some libido-suppressing pills!" I would have thought that local women would get more attention, but on the evidence of what I saw, they were not the priority.
The walk itself was over in about fifteen minutes, after which there was an energetic piece of street theatre (all in Hindi, but the message was pretty clear):
And that was it. Gradually the crowd dispersed, placards having been waved and slogans chanted.
I'm not sure what the event achieved in the end. There will be a fair amount of media coverage, but there was no direct engagement with any policy makers or other leaders. But I think the criticisms in the blog I linked to at the start of this post are more pertinent: the Delhi event may have had some important things to say, but in taking its inspiration from a movement that started in Canada and spread to the UK, the Netherlands and Australia it's questionable how relevant it is for the vast majority of Indian women, who face a different set of issues.
The position of women in India is complex. Certainly the notion that women can hold powerful positions is not unknown here. Indira Gandhi was one of the twentieth century's most powerful and longest-serving leaders of either gender; and the city of Delhi as well as the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu (together accounting for about a third of the country's population) are led by women. The president, the speaker of the lower house, and the leader of the opposition are all female. And then of course there's Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party and, according to Forbes magazine, the ninth most powerful person in the world.
But the world of politics is a rarefied one, and it often bears little resemblance to the daily lives of a country's citizens - particularly, it seems, in India. Whatever qualities they may have as individuals, it can't be denied that many female leaders here - including both the Mrs Gandhis - would be unlikely to have reached the positions they did were they not member of powerful ruling clans. This is not to downplay their achievements once in office, but it would be a mistake to think that the existence of these powerful women reflects a society in which opportunity is open to all regardless of gender.
Indian girls have it tough even before they are born. The most recent census indicates that the gender balance has swung alarmingly in favour of males in recent years: for every 1000 boys born here, there are now only 914 girls. In Haryana, it's just 861. Apart from the social problems India is setting up for itself by creating millions of future young men who are unable to find wives (already foreshadowed in the existence of people smuggling operations bringing in brides from Bangladesh and West Bengal), what's even more disturbing is the evidence that rising prosperity may actually be making things worse. As wealth and education rise one might think that an enlightened approach to gender relations might take root, but in practice it gives access to more sophisticated technologies to determine the sex of a foetus and to take action as a result (such practices are strictly illegal but still widespread).
If a girl manages to be born, she still faces a society where domestic violence, rape and abuse are all too common. Attitudes towards women are so ingrained that the perpetrators of such acts are significantly often themselves women, particularly when it comes to "dowry deaths" - when newlywed women are murdered by their husband's family for bringing insufficient cash and goodies with them when they enter into the marriage. (The practice of dowry really is repugnant, and reflects the degree to which women are devalued - it is essentially considered necessary to bribe a man's family to get him to take a woman as his wife.) Of course, as always with India, you have to beware of generalisations: things vary a great deal from state to state. But there's no denying that its treatment of its women is a stain on India.
Things are starting to change, albeit slowly. Two generations of Indian women have grown up under democracy, and those who have also had the benefit of an education are demanding a different world. I recently finished reading Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai, one of the angriest books I have ever read, which portrays the situation of women in Punjab through the tale of a young girl accused of a multiple murder and a social worker's efforts to uncover the truth. There's a heartbreaking scene that has the girl and her sister discover the skeletal hand of a baby buried in their backyard - their sister, murdered by a family that only wanted boys.
Books like these and events like the slut walk are part of a growing movement calling for change. The government, too, is doing its part: it has reserved 33 percent of seats in local democratic bodies for women, and is trying to do the same at the national level (I'm not a fan of quotas like these as I don't think they get to the root of the problem, but it is at least action), and it has invested in a public awareness campaign including posters like this one I spotted at a bus stop a couple of weeks ago:
This litany of challenging issues helps explain why the women on the Delhi walk dressed conservatively, and why the word "slut" was not translated: questions of what women can wear and what language is used may be important, but they are hardly the top of the agenda here. Ultimately, calling the event the "Slut Walk" seems really just to have been a way to get it more attention - it was really a protest against sexual violence in general, a related but different message to its forebears elsewhere in the world. Sadly, though, without the "slut walk" tag it would never have attracted as much publicity as it did - partly because of the controversial term and the (unfulfilled) prospect of scantily clad participants, and partly because the participants themselves were attracted to being part of a global, progressive movement as well as to making a statement about gender relations in India.
But you have to wonder if poor, marginalised and illiterate women in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar are going to have their lives changed by misnamed "slut walks" by privileged city dwellers, government posters and angry books. And how exactly does one go about changing the mindsets of over 600 million men who have been raised to believe they should be in charge of a wife - a wife they will find it increasingly hard to find?