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.