Ready or Not, New Delhi Gets a Women’s Street Protest
When 19-year-old Umang Sabarwal set up a Facebook page urging her friends to support SlutWalk Delhi, she may not have appreciated what she’d set in motion. Ms. Sabarwal, a student who returned to India four years ago after living in Canada, was reacting out of frustration at the Indian capital’s history of violence against women.
By NILANJANA S. ROY
NEW DELHI —When 19-year-old Umang Sabarwal set up a Facebook page urging her friends to support an event with the provocative name SlutWalk Delhi, she may not have appreciated what she’d set in motion.
Ms. Sabarwal, a student who returned to India four years ago after living in Canada, was reacting out of frustration at the Indian capital’s history of violence against women. Of India’s major cities, Delhi has among the highest rates of rape (489 reported in 2010), street violence and harassment of women.
“The way the men stare, you feel like meat,” Ms. Sabarwal said.
The headlines for just the past week in and around the capital were depressingly familiar: The police were investigating the gang rape of a woman whose attackers had videotaped the act; a woman was assaulted by a property broker and thrown from his moving car when she resisted. And in the case of the rape of a 15-year-old girl, a court awarded the rapist a reduced prison sentence on the grounds that he was his family’s only wage earner.
Still, Delhi hadn’t yet experienced the kind of activism that quickly turned an event of the same name in Toronto into a global movement. The first walk was held there in April, after a Toronto police officer said that if women wanted to avoid rape, they should “avoid dressing like sluts.” Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis organized the event to protest the ways women are judged by their sexuality. Participants are encouraged to dress as they please, without restriction or fear. The movement went viral, with marches in Amsterdam; São Paulo, Brazil; Seattle; Sydney, Australia; and other cities.
But trying to hold a walk in Delhi, the first Asian city where such an action is planned, has raised a range of contentious issues, including class differences and feminist priorities. Ms. Sabarwal has pushed the date back from June to July to involve as many women’s rights organizations as possible, and to explain what the protest is all about.
Many Indian feminists who support the idea of the march grapple with the name, which employs an English word infrequently heard here.
“Only a very tiny percentage of upper-class, elite people use the word ‘slut’ in India,” said Annie Zaidi, a journalist. “On the street, it’s never thrown at you. You’re never called ‘slut.’ It’s hard to reclaim a word that isn’t used.”
At the Badarpur subway station, Mita Desai, 17, said she didn’t understand it at all.
“Is slut like randi?” she asked, using the Hindi word for prostitute. “It’s not like the men here need to call you names to grab your breasts or threaten you.”
Ms. Desai, a sales clerk at a cosmetics shop, said she often dealt with sexual harassment on her commute to and from work. But she said she wouldn’t participate in the protest.
“My parents won’t like it,” she said. “And it’s for rich college women, not for women like me.”
Others are more open to the idea. Leela Nath, a housewife in the Delhi suburb of Shahdara, grasped the need for the march immediately. “I hope the men will come too,” she said. “They need to understand what women go through, why we are sometimes scared even to go to the market. But this business of wearing what we want to is a joke.
You can be raped wearing a salwar kameez, wearing a sari,” traditional garments. “It doesn’t matter, does it?”
Rosalyn D’Mello, a consultant at a feminist publisher, understands some of the problems of organizing protests in Delhi. A few months ago, angered by the authorities’ lack of action when a friend was harassed on the Delhi subway, Ms. D’Mello and others began a movement called Please Mend the Gap. The aim was to make the authorities more aware of women’s security needs and to change attitudes of male passengers toward women, who are often seen as easy prey for harassment if they travel outside the special women’s compartments. Flash mobs organized by Ms. D’Mello and her group of activists have drawn a strong response from officials and the public.
“The public space of the city is a battleground,” she said. “SlutWalk is an urban struggle of necessity, but while I support the initiative, I’m not so sure you can take it out of context. How do I explain SlutWalk to my maid? I feel it’s confined to class, to a certain kind of woman.”
It might be difficult for a domestic worker, concerned with low wages or workplace safety, to identify with a more privileged woman’s fight to dress as she pleases.
This is something that Ms. Sabarwal and the other organizers will have to work hard to address in the weeks leading up to the protest. Ms. Sabarwal has had to explain to the sometimes prurient news media that it is not just about “scantily clad women” taking to the streets. That phrase surfaces in many reports.
“Women can wear whatever they want, because the point we’re trying to make is that it is not the clothes you wear that cause harassment,” she said.
Bishakha De Sarkar, a journalist who has followed the women’s rights movement in India for years, puts the protest walk into context.
“There are, of course, many, many more important issues for women” than the right to dress as they please, she said. “But there is no reason why we can’t have many movements at different levels — on the street, in the corridors of power, in schools and colleges, and everywhere else.”
This may be Ms. Sabarwal’s greatest achievement — not the walk itself, but the debate it has opened. She has kicked off the kind of discussion — about personal safety, sexuality and class — that is seldom heard here. It remains to be seen if the Delhi event will meet all its goals, but it’s done half the job by starting a difficult conversation.
The New York Times
June 14, 2011
A version of this article appeared in print on June 15, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: Ready or Not, Delhi Gets a 'SlutWalk'.