Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Indians, Foreigners And The SlutWalk Legacy

Indians, Foreigners And The SlutWalk Legacy

August 01, 2011

Did brazen foreigners and reserved Indians ruin Delhi's Besharmi Morcha (aka SlutWalk)?

In an act of shameless misrepresentation, The Hindu ran their initial report on Delhi's Besharmi Morcha ('shameless protest', aka the Indian edition of 'SlutWalk') with a picture of a foreigner in a tank top. The editors even went as far as to helpfully point out her foreign-ness, and while a number of men can be seen clearly, no Indian woman can be easily identified from the photo – let alone the clothes she might have been wearing. Why is that Besharmi Morcha was carried out with men as the loudest voice, foreign women in revealing clothes as the most publicised image... and Indian women in saris and salwar-kameez walking quietly behind?

Given that I am a foreigner, I'll first address the issue of the foreign women and what they represent. My experience over three years in India taught me that I could never truly fit into any of the different strata of Indian society – except for with a few very close friends – because of the plain fact that I was an outsider. Whether or not I ever took Indian citizenship, or learned to speak an Indian language fluently, my skin would always betray me as outside the social system. As such, most Indians considered me and other foreigners I knew, especially women (thanks largely to pornography), as outside the social rules of India. We could have casual sex and cheat and take drugs and people would just think “well, they're foreigners”. Whether we did these things or not, people generally took it for granted that we did.

It's quite possible, then, that Besharmi Morcha – with its thinly dressed foreign women and their graffitied stomachs on display – has done less to combat sexual harassment of Indian women than it has to promote the notion of foreign women being ready for action anytime, anywhere and with anyone. This concept really didn't need any greater reach than it already has; it was a common (though not universal) perspective among Malayali men in my social circles, and it caused me endless frustration, especially when I was in a relationship with another foreigner. The aam aadmi could get the message that Indian women remain conservative and motherly, while foreign women are up for anything and dressed to reflect that.

Perhaps SlutWalk is a foreign concept that only Westerners have the attitude and, most importantly, the context to carry out successfully and on a large scale. Sanjukta Basu wrote on her blog about the lack of context behind the word 'slut' in Indian culture – indeed, it's impossible to imagine an Indian policeman dismissing any group of women as 'sluts', which is how the entire movement started over in Toronto. There, women sought to reclaim 'slut' in much the same way as black Americans reclaimed the word 'nigger' – except with bras and short skirts instead of raised fists. In India, the bras and short skirts have no language to reclaim.

But are skimpy clothes the most important thing here? Blogger Vidyut Gore-Kale, whose writes articulately on a wide variety of topics, says “The essence of a slutwalk is the right of a woman to wear what she likes, like the essence of a thoroughbred is in its speed.” If the context is Toronto, perhaps this is true. In the context of India, this narrows the focus too greatly. I think the essence of an Indian slutwalk is the right of a woman to appear in public without fear of being harassed or raped regardless of the clothes she wears, like – to rewrite Vidyut's metaphor – the essence of a thoroughbred is in its right to race in the first place.

In other words, the message should encompass the right to dress like a 'slut' but refrain from making that right the sole focus. The real question is whether revealing dress is the best means of conveying a hands-off message to would-be eve-teasers and rapists. While women deserve freedom of fashion, behaviour and sexuality - just as men do, and generally enjoy in India - that is a different thing from wearing a tank top or a short skirt. And if skimpy clothes are the symbolic vehicle by which an Indian male is supposed to gain a new respect for women, there's a very real danger of confusing the message – regardless of whether they are worn by foreigners or by Indians.

Instead, a helpful indicator lies in the encouraging words of female police officers to the marching crowd: “Do this every year, then maybe the men will start to listen.” These are women in positions of authority (indeed, they are members of a police culture that is widely derided across India for sweeping sexual harassment cases under the rug) who support the movement and hope to see it come back bigger and stronger next year, and the year after that, and so on. Besharmi Morcha could have been one blinding, brilliantly successful flash of light to illuminate the darkness – yes. But the fact that it wasn't is no reason to decry it.

A long-term view is necessary when evaluating an activist movement that is in its infancy. The short-term perspective is that Besharmi Morcha was a failure, largely due to a lack of coordination between its participants and the wrong voices shouting loudest on its behalf – or, more accurately, the most representative and potentially impactful voices remaining relatively silent. However, while less than 1000 (according to various estimates) showed up in 2011, the organisers could learn from this inaugural march and come back stronger, better coordinated, better promoted in 2012.

Critics of this Besharmi Morcha have to acknowledge it as the first release of pressure and reserve final judgment until at least a few years down the line. The social norm being challenged – disrespect and institutionalised harassment of women – is a powerful view that has centuries of momentum behind it. Like the American civil rights movement in mid-20th century US or the suffrage movement in 1890s New Zealand, change will take time. It will also take perseverance, not only from the chief organisers but from supportive onlookers who hope for the movement's success.

Postscript: My opinion as stated here was formed on the basis of what I could read and see online, a lot of it via mainstream news organisations. To put it simply, I wasn't there for Besharmi Morcha and I don't know what it was actually like. I always trust Nilanjana Roy to tell it like it is, which is why I place greatest stock in her firsthand view, but like the vast majority of commentators my view is culled from filtered and slanted reports. I strongly invite those who were actually present to offer their perspective in any public forum they choose, because theirs are the voices with the greatest need to be heard. 


  • Sarah
    13.11.11 08:31 PM
    I am a little late to the discussion, but the photo in the article in question, makes me wonder if the scene is in New Delhi at all... it looks a bit more like NYC to me... but then I don't know all the streets/buildings in New Delhi!

    For me, I think the slut term is embraced not because that is what she was wearing, but this is what she will be called if she is raped.

    And I am with another commenter about India possibly not being ready for a "slutwalk" because I've seen some of the "western modeled" versions of women's empowerment (sex-positive messages, wear what you want, do what you want) and its almost as if they do a disservice to the women who aren't at that point of their revolution. They are still trying to not be doormats, and trying to get equal pay, being able to be promiscuous is not even on the list!

    Then a western woman comes in with the power embedded in her passport and sets the standards for Indian women in a way that doesn't so much set up a system of empowerment, but sets up a system closer to "free candy" -- because the men have not yet learned how to hold the power they have.
  • rohan
    04.09.11 02:04 PM
    well organizing slut walks is not the solutions, educating is the solution "rapist and eve teasers" are mentally not that strong to let go a women who by her attire seems like a instead of walking on the roads should do it at home because these men are at home and...will they rape or tease their own blood....if yes then this walk is an utter failure.
  • shubha
    18.08.11 10:10 PM
    I support slut Morcha/Walk in Delhi.because I believe in freedom to do anything may be exposure.
  • Cutting Kahlua
    Cutting Kahlua
    05.08.11 10:52 AM
    I laughed aloud when I first saw the pictures of the Delhi Slutwalk/Besharmi morcha. I thought if I were invited to a Slutwalk, and if I went to it, and found out that I am the only one dressed like a slut - it would be super embarrassing! After all its a slut walk!
  • Mohit gupta
    Mohit gupta
    05.08.11 01:49 AM
    No Morcha -No SlutWalk.

    Hang Him Who rapes !

    And you will see that Coming Generations would not remember what RAPE actually was.

    That is the FINAL SOLUTION.
    Later you impliment it , More the women suffer !
  • tys
    04.08.11 10:12 AM
    i feel the point of the walk was to highlight the harassment a woman faces for just being a woman from men..its us who came up with the reasons/ justification (!)for the harassment...provocative dressing, cultural submissiveness, gender specified behaviour,globalization, western influences, sexual repressions, religious privilage etc...but the fact remains that a sexual harassment is something she will always have to watch out for...

    its us who shud be walking out there...making sure that our attitude towards them change or atleast look within ourselves and see ourselves for what we are doing that is causing this fear in them..

    its a problem for every woman, every where... and its sad to hear it being dismissed becoz the protest didnt satisfy our cultural baggage...
  • Barkha Dhar
    Barkha Dhar
    04.08.11 09:01 AM
    Your post portrays an excellent understanding of the Indian culture and of the issues why slut walk couldn't be much success in raising social consciousness about crime against women in India. Hope next year the slut walk would be taken up as an initiative to change instead of going to deep into the context or meaning of the word slut. This post is worth a tweet and a vote.
    Thanks for sharing
    Barkha Dhar
  • drovi Andri
    drovi Andri
    03.08.11 09:18 PM
    Although I did not read the article in question, i can agree how such misrepresentation can affect the cause of slutwalk. People start to think probably Indian Girls are not as opposed to the idea of passing the buck on to the victim. Maybe its just the foreigners who wear skimpy clothes that want this change. if that's true, its not our problem is it?
  • Sunil Deepak
    Sunil Deepak
    03.08.11 01:01 PM
    Enjoyed reading your thoughtful post and most of the comments.

    Not just men, but often also the women reflect society's view that most women invite or deserve molestation because of what they ear or kind of job they have or the way they laugh and talk in public, etc. needs to be challenged. May be slut walk is not the right name for it, but still it could be a beginning.
  • Amit K
    Amit K
    03.08.11 11:01 AM
    very nice approach barn. One this that I am 100% agreeing with is a Besharm Morcha every year till it ring some bell in deaf ears and minds of a lrage portion of men in India.
  • rahul
    03.08.11 08:36 AM
    what ever problem which is facing by women are did only and only by women its self and today she is demanding for freedom

    now anyone going to tell me at what level they need freedom..............
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    03.08.11 03:27 AM
    First of all, thank you all for such insightful comments. This is a classic case of the comments thread being more vital than the article itself!

    Vidyut, your praise means a lot - and thank you for clarifying your stance. I'm sure the Mumbai edition will be much more successful with you at the helm.

    Vidhya, I agree that India may not be ready for 'SlutWalk' but I do think it's ready for 'Besharmi Morcha' - or some other, less crude form of the movement. It has to be ready because harassment is at a level that simply cannot be explained by population and the law of averages.

    PC, we must never stop standing up for journalistic standards!

    Michele, thank you so much for deeply insightful comments from Milwaukee. Destroying the myth that victims are in some way responsible for rape is a worthy cause that is absolutely relevant to India. I hope future editions of the movement continue to place great focus on this aspect.

    Sudha, I think 'shameless' here is intended to imply that the women walk without shame - i.e. they refuse to feel ashamed simply for walking down the street. The word has negative connotations, though; I understand the Mumbai planners are working on a new name for their movement.

    Vikram, I think you're on the right track but I hope you'll support the movement as it grows over the years.

    Ipsita, I thank you for offering your first-hand perspective. Now the key is to learn from the lessons of this initial toe-in-the-water and apply that knowledge going forward. As for the foreigners thing, I completely agree - and I lay the greatest blame with advertisers and shows like MTV Grind for this phenomenon. A negligible percentage of India's population is foreign; public images should reflect that. Foreigners ought to be viewed less as an ideal or the most interesting thing out there, and more as people who can contribute a different perspective to an already fascinating nation. I'm glad to know foreigners who are doing their part by living everyday lives in India with politeness and an appreciation of their surroundings.
  • Ipsita Nayak
    Ipsita Nayak
    02.08.11 11:33 PM
    Having had first hand experience, I'd love to claim that the Delhi Slutwalk aka Besharmi Morcha was a tremendous success, but I know that it wasn't. But it makes me proud that I was a part of a movement on such a sensitive issue trying to put across the dilemma a woman faces in her daily life(even though most women decided it was not worth their times to go & do something about it). The same question I get asked again and again is "How will doing a slutwalk help?" . My question to them is, "How is sitting at home and being a skeptic about everything going to help?"
    And as it's rightfully said- "Change will take time." We need to stand as a united front and believe a change will take place, no matter how minute!

    The point you raise about the unnecessary focus on foreigners is an excellent one. I think India needs to shift beyond and away from it's awe for foreigners. Period. I was happy those foreigners were there, but they were not the only ones there! But the cameras would swing right in their direction once one would enter the periphery. Which is a little sad actually.

    All said and done, I would certainly like to believe that this movement will grow bigger and more importantly, bring about changes as it is aiming at. :)
  • Vikram
    02.08.11 10:32 PM
    This event has no relevance in India. If it had been organized to promote self respect among women and ask them to be less tolerant of sexual or other abuses then it would have been more relevant to the situation.

    Neither foreigners or the media is to blame. Its just an event that was not thought through.
  • Sudha
    02.08.11 10:11 PM
    I think that th whole problem with the Indian "Slutwalk" lies with its nomenclature "Besharmi" or Shameless. Who is shameless one? The women or the men?
  • Michele Stander-Reimer
    Michele Stander-Reimer
    02.08.11 07:08 PM
    This is very interesting and I think discusses some of the problems in terms of some SlutWalks and more so, of how media have focused on SlutWalks. The right to wear what we want is certainly part of this fight, at least in the states and in other countries, but it is a small part. What this fight is really about, and the main feature we have been engaging in Milwaukee, is victim-blaming. We dismiss victims of sexual assault with the casual use of the word slut, to say that she deserved it. We also wholly ignore assaults on males. There are quite a people who show up, in fact most who show, aren't dressed procavtively, but media find those that do, and then choose to ignore the context of why and discuss it as if it were a panty-party.

    However, while I do agree that the clothing aspect of this isn't applicable to many societies, the blaming is. I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a Muslim at the beginning of this she was a little bothered by the idea, because she dresses very conservatively and finds agreat amount of power in how she dresses. But, I explained that it's not about clothing, it's about what we use as an excuse. In the states we often use clothing as an excuse to dismiss a rape. However, there was protest against Muslim women this spring too where people yelled that they deserved domestic abuse and rape because they follow Islam. To include Muslim women, we must ignore procavtive dress and address the issue of religious prejudice. It was within that context that my friend is coming to SlutWalk Milwaukee. She will certainly be in a hijab and an abaya, but will also be stating that no one deserves it, which should be at the heart of any message.

    I think cultural competancy is integral to any protest like this. If the main discussion in India was about clothing then that really is unfortunate, as stated in the article, clothing isn't the mechanism that promotes the idea of deservingness there. Organizers need to be cognizant of where they are, and what social mechanisms promote victim-blaming in their community and approach those directly. That is the only way to deal with the root of this issue of sexual violence.
  • Pundit comment
    Pundit comment
    02.08.11 09:10 AM
    I agree with your approach, Barnaby. I was unimpressed with the name and fairly dismissive of the concept of the event when first I heard of it. I, too, came round to the long view on the movement after watching the Delhi founder with Ms. Roy on a tv show. Even if the message does not reach the appropriate audiences to have any meaningful impact on street harassment and sexual incidents, I applaud the activists for making the effort. According to a trusted first person account from an Indian college girl, the organizers arranged for bottled water and police protection. It is a shame the media played games with such a sensitive subject. I'm so glad I stopped reading the papers. Seriously, folks. Take back the media!
  • Vidhya
    02.08.11 08:05 AM
    So true, India is hypocritical in that it stereotypes foreigners based merely on fleeting images from Hollywood. I doubt they're ready for a movement like the Slutwalk, or rather I don't think it will have the intended impact, and will just be another platform for a pointless debate where the message of the movement will fade away
  • Vidyut
    02.08.11 07:19 AM
    Fantastic write up. wanted to repeat. I don't think revealing clothes are needed for a slutwalk in India. I only wish they hadn't made item numbers out of foreigners - a combination of "sex dependent media" and relatively younger and inexperienced organizers.

    Also, there is a part of me that stands in judgment of our pantheon of bold women who could have lent experience, weight of authority and reach to the movement, but didn't. It is totally untrue that teenagers and foreigners are the only feminists/humanists/rights promoting people in Delhi. Chalk one more missed opportunity to a culture of apathy.

Leave a comment