By Anita Anand
The last weekend of July in Delhi witnessed a 'besharami morcha' or a 'shameless march'. Besharami is a Hindi word loosely translated to without shame.
Inspired by the 'Slut Walk' in Toronto, Canada earlier this year and since then in many cities in different parts of the world, the march is about young women marching to protest rape and sexual harassment based on the way they dress or look. The word 'slut' in the English language is a pejorative term or an insult for a person who is considered to have loose sexual morals or be sexually promiscuous. In various languages there are similar words used for women who do not conform to traditional or societal notions and norms of womanhood.
Men, ever fearful of women's sexuality, have tried so many ways to control them. When names or shaming women fails, there is sexual violence, often in the form of rape. Even murder is not unknown.
Protests against this violence towards women is not new. Living in the US in the 70s and 80s I was part of many marches, sit ins, vigils and legislation to stop violence against women. These efforts have been in many countries, in many creative ways, as local women have thought fit to do, according to their culture and reality. 'Take back the Night' marches started as far back as 1976 in Belgium, followed by marches in the US in 1977 and in Mumbai in 1978. It is now a global movement and there is even an organisation that follows the movement.
While marches, legislation and awareness raising may have made this violence against women a talking point, there is a substantial level of violence against women still. In India, there has been a shocking negligence of changing hearts and minds in a large scale manner. Analysis of the problem points to patriarchy (which it well is) and the solution has been sought in stringent laws and punitive measures. Given the very long arm of the law, this is clearly not enough. Men may get locked up, beaten and be shamed in public. After that, what? The women go on to suffer, emotionally and physically marked by the violence against them: babies to grandmothers, nobody is spared.
What to do? I have some ideas - starting with all heads of states to publicly say they are against such violence. I would suggest parents tell their sons (and daughters) that this behaviour is unacceptable. School, college and university teachers, principals, counselors, must insist that this behaviour is NOT accepted on the institution’s premises or outside. Public places such as streets, restaurants, bars, movie halls and shopping centres must discourage such behaviour. In short, we must make it socially and politically incorrect for men to be violent against women. The media, instead of sensationalistic coverage for a day or two can give concerted and timely attention to the kinds of violence.
In the Slut walks, half the women dress provocatively. Is this necessary?
Dressing provocatively draws unwanted attention. If women want to show their bodies, who is this for? It could be for themselves and others. But we don't live in a vacuum. In and outside the home, we are surrounded by people. And chances are, if we show skin or accentuate certain parts of our bodies, we will get attention and often not from people we want. Make no mistake: it’s not about the right to wear what one wants. It’s about doing what is appropriate in a certain situation, i.e. public. Over the years, I have seen women exposing more flesh than is necessary.
This summer in the US, I saw cleavage as I have seen before. I am not sure what all this is about, but I don't think it's such a great idea. It does matter what women wear and where they wear it to. Being mindful in our dressing is essential to being sensitive to our environment.
Men will stare and pass comments. In the Indian context, most men come from families where the lives of women and men are quite separate. They may not be used to seeing women in figure hugging clothes or showing skin. And, nor is staring considered bad manners as 'manners' is not in their vocabulary. No one likes to be stared at. Many don't even consider what they are doing as staring. There are nuances in every culture and women need to understand this and devise appropriate responses to the situation.
Media reports of the Delhi walk last weekend included a college student saying her friend brought her a skirt to wear; she was sad that she did not have anything 'sluttish' in her wardrobe!
The walk had men and women, about 500 in all. It was coordinated by a college student. This is admirable. Marching is a start. But the language and intent is important too. I think the irony of the Besharami walk may have been lost on the general public - as many of the slogans and placards seen in the media coverage were very middle class.
The broader issues of violence against women need more strategic thinking and action. Changing hearts and minds is serious work and takes time. It requires a more nuanced understanding of our immediate environment, more engagement with it and with local symbols and language.