Thursday, December 08, 2011

Communicating Slutwalk

The scheduled slutwalk at Bangalore was cancelled earlier this week. Since slutwalk seeks to promote the safety of women on the streets, it is a matter of concern that this would be cancelled in an Indian city, especially for the reasons provided by the Bangalore police. Police spokespeople said that they would be unable to guarantee the safety of the marchers, and so were not in a position to allow the march to proceed as planned.

Now Bangalore has unfortunately become the stomping grounds of ultra-conservative right-wing factions like the Sri Ram Sene, and the police have cause to be nervous about possible acts of violence. But looking over the press reports of the slutwalk held in Delhi earlier this year, I can't help thinking that this particular cancellation has more to do with language, context and appropriateness, than with the walk itself.

Held in July, Delhi's slutwalk was largely an offenceless affair, from the moral conservative point of view. It consisted of women dressed in ordinary clothing, expressing concern about the capital's streets, carrying banners, posters and other signs making the points that they "love consent", that their "short skirt has nothing to do with you", and that "the way a woman dresses is not an invitation to sexual assault."

It was, however, called a 'slutwalk'. Slut, as popularly understood in India, means sexworker. So 'slutwalk' literally means the march of the sexworkers. Contextualized in a culture in which boys and girls still find it difficult to meet and engage in regular conversation without being harassed by policemen and other enforcers of the great moral brigade, this term takes on a different meaning than it did in Toronto, where the slutwalk was instituted. In this country, a putative march of the sexworkers is constructed in the male public imagination as an occasion for voyeurism and worse, which was why so many men turned out to watch the walk. Most went away when faced with the regular women (and men) who showed up, in lieu of the promised spectacle. 

A name can be a promise. You hear 'National Gallery of Modern Art', and an image floats in front of your eyes. It may not be the NGMA building as it stands at India Gate, but you put together several contiguous concepts, and get a large building, possibly important looking, containing abstract and figurative art. Say 'chopsticks', or 'the black hole of Calcutta', or 'estuary', and images will float up at you, images that you more or less expect to be related to actuality when you behold the real thing. 

Going by this logic, when you say 'slutwalk', you provide for a certain kind of expectation, with a measure of titillation, and possible gratification thrown in. This effect would be intensified by the manner in which 'slutwalk' was translated in Hindi: 'besharmi morcha' (march of the shameless). 

Now, if you wanted regular women with regular lives to be safe on the streets, why would you call an event marking this entirely reasonable demand a march of the shameless? Why would you do this particularly in Delhi, which has the highest reported sexual crime in the country? When this fact is pointed out to Delhi politicians and bureaucrats, they retort that women just need to take better care of themselves and not venture out at night. Why, if you are demanding women's human rights and safely, would you designate them sluts on a besharmi morcha? In patriarchal India, in ultra-patriarchal Delhi. It just makes no communicative sense to me at all.

At least it didn't, until I figured out that this phenomenon may be a combination of two factors that seem to have become endemic in India's big cities: 
First, that the elite of these spaces imagine that they do not live in India at all, but in some unnamed location that seems to me to be an amalgamation of several western soaps, with 'Friends' topping the list. In the world of 'Seinfeld', or the 'OC', or 'Desperate Housewives', a slutwalk would be a fun thing, with few socio-cultural consequences. It would be wonderful if that were true here, but it is clearly not.
Second, that many of the people organizing the slutwalk probably do not use public transport for a lack of options. In other words, these people do not stand at bus-stops late at night on a regular basis, waiting for a transport home from the late shift. Naturally, then, such experience is not a factor taken into account when they propose to call a demand for women's safety a 'slutwalk'.

The point I am trying to make is that a call for the safely of women should be just that, and should also ideally try to be as inclusive as possible. A name is more than a name, and when a name actively seeks to position an event in a particular manner, this says something about the choice, and the choosing of that name.

About Bangalore. Even with the Sri Ram Sene and their ilk, would the police have refused protection to a march for women's safety that was called 'a march for women's safety'? Perhaps even something a little more scintillating would have passed muster. But march of the sexworkers? 

Please, if the safety of women is indeed the concern, let us re-evaluate strategy in the light of communicative appropriateness. 


Sujoy said...

yeah like skankbitches and hoes unite for some ass whuppin' at defaaance clony !!!

olidhar said...

so, in delhi, *did* any sexworkers actually walk the streets? or was that never the point of it?

and love sujoyda's comment :).