The Walk & the talk

I was not particularly astonished to find that the word “slut” does not have a male equivalent. In many languages other than English, there is no male word for “prostitute” or “widow”. Thus the entire debate over the “slut walk” is obviously centred on the rights and current disempowerment of women.

As we are all now aware, a particularly stupid Canadian policeman Michael Sanguinetti told an outraged student audience in Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto, that women in order to avoid being victimised should “avoid dressing like sluts”. And the outrage spread all over the world with women organising “slut walks” in order to “reclaim” the word.
The caveats I begin with are very simple. The first is that it passes my comprehension why anybody would even want to “reclaim” the word slut, with its unmistakably pejorative implication? Being called a slut is quite simply an insult and has little to do with the way you dress. It’s not quite the same as the universal pejorative “bastard” which is meant to abuse a particular person, but actually questions his parentage, but the import is similar. In my experience men (and some women) call a woman a slut for a variety of reasons motivated by jealousy, frustration, chauvinism, stupidity, or rather simply, a lack of imagination. Thus the stated objective of organising a “slut walk” to reclaim the word seems extremely counterproductive to me. However, other issues that arise out of this protest are far more basic and very important.
My second and less important rather trivial astonishment has to do with the fact that a stray comment made by chauvinistic Michael Sanguinetti should have reverberated around the world as if it were a precious pearl of wisdom, or on the other hand, the worst thing anybody has ever said about women. Millions of nasty remarks about women are made every second of the day, and it is amazing to me why this one has generated so much debate.
Be that as it may, Delhi is set to have its own slut walk in late July, spearheaded by young Umang Sabharwal, who has Indianised the name to “Besharmi Morcha” and says rather sweepingly that the idea behind the “Besharmi Morcha” is to “point to the tendency to avoid facing the issue of sexual violence”.
At first glance it appears to be a noble objective, but certainly it is dubious in the extreme if the “Besharmi Morcha” itself will be able to make any great impact upon the very horrible and real issues of sexual atrocities and violence against women in a country like India. However, I certainly do not agree with what some other outraged commentators have said, to the effect that the “Besharmi Morcha” will trivialise the whole issue of sexual atrocities and rape and what prevented these young girls from taking out protests against dowry deaths or female foeticide. Well, the answer to that is obvious. In our democratic country everybody has the right to protest, (and they do) about whatever has touched their lives or moved them. There are thousands of modern young urban women, in whose lives dowry deaths or female foeticide find no resonance, but who every day face harsh words, molestation and abuse from men in urban spaces. They, too, have the right to voice their own protest and it does not in any way detract from the much larger and wider issue of sexual violence and rape in other contexts. These young girls are trying to say that they want to reclaim public spaces in cities and make them non discriminatory and safe for women and also have the right to express themselves in their own way regarding the way they dress and still be safe from harassment and abuse. In other words, men have a duty to behave decently and responsibly and that duty is not conditional upon the dress of the women they see. To claim otherwise would be as silly as saying, that you should not keep anything valuable or beautiful in your house or else thieves would then be tempted to rob you.
Thus, in my view, these young girls certainly have the right to express their protest about the colonisation of urban spaces by chauvinistic men, particularly in Delhi, where according to some reports, one woman is raped every 18 hours, one is molested every 14 hours, four out of five are verbally harassed and one-third physically molested. However, this is a protest that is far removed from the deep and complex question of sexual violence, rape and other atrocities against women. A stark example of the difference is an exhibition recently held by the activist group “White Noise” in Bengaluru which simply displayed the garments worn by rape victims when the crime occurred. Not surprisingly most of the rape victims were covered from head to toe, and some even had their heads covered. Therefore, the most crucial issue of this entire debate is the fact that our democracy has simply failed to protect its women from sexual violence. Everybody knows that the real motivation of rape is less about lust and is really an assertion of power and dominance. That is the reason why during wars or communal riots the battles are not fought between men on either side, but rather, upon the bodies of women. A woman is alleged to have been raped by someone, and her so-called protectors, instead of punishing the man who raped her, go out and rape another woman who belongs to the other side! Thus it is the women of all sections who are being punished while society fights its communal and caste wars. Even the most enlightened sections of society have failed to understand the utter vileness of the crime of rape. When high court judges actually mull over a judgment that allows a rape accused to go scot-free because he offers to marry his victim, it is a telling commentary upon the still prevailing mindset in our country today.
Violence against women is a heinous crime and ought to be punished severely. Social, cultural and regional values are absolutely irrelevant in this regard, and unless we recognise this in the clearest possible terms, we do grave injustice to our women.

The author is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.
The views expressed in this column are her own.

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