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I type a very Indian name into the Google search bar at my office computer in Bangalore: "Umang Sabarwal." Upon hitting “enter,” I notice my access to this search has been denied—pornographic content is not allowed in the workplace.
The office firewall has misconstrued the website content of my Google search, misinterpreting the significance of "slut," "whore," and dozens of other, more sexually explicit words left by angry viral Indians venting on online discussion boards. The name I had entered, “Umang Sabarwal,” belongs not to a porn star, but to the nineteen-year-old Delhi University student who felt it relevant to bring Toronto’s SlutWalk, a protest against rape culture, to the streets of India’s capital.
The protest has spread to more than seventy-five cities worldwide, standing against the blame-the-victim attitude found in all the cultures represented by these metropolises. Arising as a response to a Toronto cop who announced, “Women should stop dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” thousands have since taken to the streets in their lingerie, driven to make the point that there is no excuse for rape.
When Umang Sabarwal announced a SlutWalk in New Delhi in July, the idea behind the demonstration was lost in translation. Like my workplace firewall, many Indians processed SlutWalk at its superficial face value—the fishnet leggings seen on TV were taken exactly as what they stood against. Indian feminists argued that the irony behind the SlutWalk, that participants dress provocatively because they are not asking for it, would fall on deaf ears. But if feminists are angered that India’s males will wrongly interpret cleavage as an open invitation, they cannot resign themselves to accepting such a simplified interpretation of SlutWalk. Though many argue that SlutWalk is only an effective protest in Western society, it is also applicable in India.
Older feminists counter that it is not culturally relative to transpose SlutWalk onto Indian streets. Many think the issue of dress as peripheral in a country stricken by female infanticide and dowry deaths. More still have derided the protest as something that only the upper echelon of society would engage in. The feminist organizers of Delhi University responded that victims of sexual violence do not arrive in cookie-cutter shapes to the police precincts. They range from college students clad in jeans to village migrants wrapped in saris. Acknowledging that social media like Twitter and Facebook, which first made Delhi SlutWalk popular, would be lost on the millions unable to access these platforms, they engaged in street skits for those who could not read. They staged flash mobs throughout the city with the purpose of demonstrating the prevalence of the bystander affect. They created a physical forum for open dialogues held to discuss gender stereotypes and inequality. They translated SlutWalk and renamed it “Besharmi Morcha,” the Walk of Shamelessness, lest the English word “slut” be lost on the Indian people. Though a young, educated demographic drove the protest, their rallying cry didn’t concern the right to dress like the cast of Friends. Victimization is apparent in the smallest of villages, and victimization is apparent in the wealthiest of city circles.
Still, opponents added to this criticism, viewing the protest as a demonstration to assert Westernization and the loosening of cultural mores. They argued that Indian men too are held to societal constraints, so scantily-clad women should not so freely parade around their sacred motherland. But when a city is deemed the “rape capital” of India with an incident occurring once every eighteen hours, when the number of reported rapes has increased by 678 percent in the past 30 years, and when the police are notorious for taking minimal to no action in the prosecution of acts of sexual violence, it becomes clear that these societal constraints are not actually so constraining. Lewd comments on the street, groping on the metro trains, and the persistence of stalkers are common experiences shared by many of the capital’s women. As the heavy coverage by the media shows, SlutWalk was revolutionary in agitating against the complacency with the patriarchal status quo—which discourages open dialogue regarding male and female relations, historically pushing it under the rug.
Before the event took place, Indians were afraid of the indecency that these young feminists would transpose onto the public sphere in the name of women’s rights. 700 people came out to protest on that last day in July, mostly clad in jeans and a t-shirt—increasingly growing as the preferred choice of dress for Delhi’s women. Disappointment reverberated in the media as photographers scurried towards the lone woman in a pink tank top. With the hope of capturing as much flesh as they could, she was their best bet.
Although they dressed less extremely than their international counterparts, the participants embodied the visceral transformation that New Delhi is currently experiencing. The organizers reinterpreted a more culturally relevant SlutWalk for their city. In this way, they took a critical step in appropriating the fight against harassment into their own hands.
Pearl Bhatnagar ’14 is an editorial comper living Pforzheimer House.
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