A FORTNIGHT AGO, Umang Sabharwal, a 20-yearold journalism student caught the global wave of SlutWalks (12 since April 2011) and decided to organise one in Delhi. Umang is now in the strange position of having to answer for the state of Indian women. She has also to submit to the self-appointed committees that want her to jump through some hoops before deciding whether her protest (and she) are virtuous.

Hoop Number One. If your protest gets a lot of press, you are a shameless attention seeker. If you get only five people, you poor thing don’t know how to mobilise the grassroots. So we ignore well-intentioned petitions and fasten our irises on SlutWalk, hoping the flower of Indian womanhood will turn out in their skimpy best. Never mind the organisers who say, “We are only asking people to wear what they wear on normal days.”

Hoop Number Two. Empathy for women is a limited resource, so one must pick a favourite victim: the 21-year-old nervous about the male friend driving her home after a drink; the 25-year-old factory worker walking home after a shift; the 75-year-old groped outside the temple or the 14-year-old raped by a cop. Feeling bad for one means you should ignore the others. Hence the critiques that imply urban ladies are cruising into the asking-for-it territory with SlutWalk because what do they have to complain about?

Hoop Number Three. Any protest by women must accommodate all Indian women —who are divided by class and community on every other day. Without the token gesture of solidarity towards the poor woman, no one will attribute a moral centre to the protest. Umang and gang have changed the name of the protest to Besharmi Morcha because “people who don’t speak English won’t relate to it”. The poor, rural woman is often invoked as a moral tale for the urban girl who has the gall to complain. (This theory of relativity operates only in the realm of gender. Had Delhi students protested against 100 percent cutoffs, no one would tell them, “Be grateful. Millions don’t go to college at all.”) Such critiques reveal our cardboard cutout visions of the poor. The woman who walks miles for water does nothing else in our imagination.

A critic wrote, “If SlutWalk organisers think Indian women lie awake at night, wishing they could dress like a strumpet without attracting a glance, they are delusional.” (We’ll skip over the humourless use of the word ‘strumpet’. Ah, Victorian porn!) Why are we sure the watercarrying woman spends more time thinking about female foeticide than the stranger following her? That she doesn’t wish she could attract a glance without paying a price?

Then there is the phalanx that says SlutWalk is taking away face time from real issues. Why must it be either/or? Let’s take female foeticide, the rates of which are dropping in communities where women are contributing to the family income. It’d be a good idea to encourage young women to claim their right to safe passage. Perhaps then they’ll not grow into infantilised rabbits. Instead, SlutWalkers are accused of not having organised anti-foeticide protests first.

All of us harrumphing about the Mardi Gras tone of the SlutWalks should know how it feels to walk in a march. It may or may not have a great turnout, but the SlutWalkers will feel a little stronger, remember the day with a charge. It is a chance to reflect on why Delhi is unsafe for women and to remember the one thing that keeps women safe in a space — the normalising of the presence of women in the space.

To return to subaltern ladies, in January, when two teenaged sisters were shot dead in Sopore, Kashmir, locals said they had “roamed around the market at dusk, laughing and chatting on their cell phones. Akhtara was warned to mend her ways but continued to behave improperly”. Perhaps Akhtara had nation and female foeticide on her mind, but perhaps she’d have enjoyed being part of something called Besharmi Morcha.

Published here