Conflict & Justice

New Delhi 'Slutwalk' Protest

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Safter Country (Courtesy of Besharmi Morcha1)

by Eliot Hannon

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It all started in Toronto when a Canadian cop said women shouldn't dress like "sluts" if they don't want to be victimized. Women there responded by launching a march against sexual violence. They dubbed it a "slutwalk." Protestors wore skimpy outfits to make the point that they're not responsible for being groped or attacked.

That march sparked a series of similar "slutwalks" in other cities around the world. The latest was in the Indian capital, New Delhi, on Sunday.

Organizers of SlutWalk Delhi, armed with loudspeakers and walkie talkies, marshalled the hundreds of protestors who showed up early Sunday morning. In past marches in other cities exhibitionism ruled the day, but the Delhi event took a more subdued approach. Trishla Singh, a college student in New Delhi, was a coordinator of the march.

"It has to be a little bit toned down because we're talking about a different socio-cultural context," Singh said. "If you talk about societal time frame, we are not in the same time as Toronto or the U.S. We have certain laws against obscenity, so we cannot ask people to come naked to a march naked."

Those who did come were dressed, casually but not provocatively. They wore t-shirts and jeans, rather than fishnets, bras and miniskirts, as they did in previous marches. Women and a few young men carried placards that said, among other things, "I have nothing to be ashamed of."

Trishla Singh said the idea was to spotlight a serious issue in India – sexual harassment and violence against women.

"Public transportation, going out on the streets, anything that has to do with going out of the house is problematic. People stare at you, they make you feel uncomfortable. In places where it's very crowded, people take advantage of the crowd, they try to molest you," Singh said.

Over the past three decades, reported cases of rape have increased six fold in India. Sexual harassment or "eve teasing" as it's called here, is commonplace in public spaces. In New Delhi, groping on public transportation is particularly notorious.

This is all happening as Indian women are working out of the homes more than ever before, many in call centers at all hours of the night. The economic boom has created a cultural shift that hasn't always been smooth, according to Amita Sahaya of the Women Work and Health Initiative based in New Delhi.

"There is this clash between the old and the new in India," Sahaya said. "So many of these subjects were basically brushed under the carpet because of the connection with shame, because Indian women have been taught embrace various types of shame and not speak out."

Speaking out still hasn't been easy, even with the planned slutwalk. Organizers faced criticism from conservative and feminist groups, neither of whom liked the provocative name. To make the event more palatable, organizers changed the name to 'Besharmi Morcha or "Shameless Walk." Instead of suggestive dress, street plays were performed to get the point across.

Even with the scaled down version, police almost matched protesters in numbers to ensure there were no incidents. Agrata Garg, a college student in Delhi, wasn't quite sure what to expect in terms of opposition at the rally. But she said the women in her family were worried because they know first hand the dangers for women in the capital on a normal day.

"That's why they're so reluctant to send us," Garg said. "They'll be like, okay, take care, give me a message once you get there."

For Umang Saberwal, the event's chief organizer, changing this sense of fear is part of the inspiration of the march.

"We were hoping for people to start talking to understand that there's a problem and something needs to be done about it, Saberwal said. She added that it's important for women to assert themselves and reclaim what's rightfully theirs, though it may take some time for that to happen.

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