India’s Walk of Shame

SlutWalk India was not quite the riotous occasion that it's been in other countries. Too bad, because India's streets could use some equality.

Kaushik Roy/India Today Group/Getty Images
Kaushik Roy/India Today Group/Getty Images

NEW DELHI — There was not a bra in sight. No fishnet stockings or lace lingerie. SlutWalk Delhi was a decidedly demure affair.

Although SlutWalk Delhi is the latest iteration of a worldwide protest movement that started in Toronto after a police constable told a group of students that women should avoid dressing "like sluts" if they didn’t want to be harrassed, this protest was decidedly Indian. Shorts and tank tops were as slutty as it got on this hot afternoon on Sunday, July 31. Most of the women came in everyday jeans and long-sleeved kurtas or loose shirts.

The walk was even renamed for Indian tastes: Besharmi Morcha, which means Shameless March. The organizers — mostly young college students — used a more accessible Hindi word, besharam, that is commonly used to berate any sort of unwomanly behavior in India, from talking loudly to being assertive. And, as the all-encapsulating name suggests, there’s a broad spectrum of women’s rights violations, from irritatingly tiny to violently blatant, to protest here in India.

Earlier this year, the Delhi police released a statement saying women are not safe in public places after 2 a.m. The capital has one of the highest incidences of rape in the country, with a reported 258 cases by June this year, according to the Delhi police. There were 489 cases in 2010, compared with New York City’s 438 (among a couple of million fewer residents) in 2010.

And rape is only one of many forms of sexual harassment that women in New Delhi face, from daily whistling, catcalling, or spontaneous serenades with Bollywood love songs, to kidnapping, molestation on public transport, or even acid attacks from jilted suitors.

Although India has an active feminist movement, the scope of the problem makes it difficult to deal with. The more serious issues, such as honor killings and public stoning, take precedence over stalking and verbal harassment. And Besharmi Morcha was no exception, no matter how much the organizers tried to dress it up for local audiences. Although activists and police had braced for a turnout of about 2,000, based on posts on a Facebook page, the actual march only attracted an estimated 800 men and women, their signs proclaiming: "Change your thoughts, not my clothes"; "Why does a woman become public property in public?"; "You’re a pervert and I have to wear a burkha?"

Several of the participants lamented the lack of involvement from the older generation of Indians, both men and women, and blamed it on the provocative framing. Nidhi Varma, 25, a graduate student of gender studies at Ambedkar University in Delhi who marched on Sunday, said, "The uncles and aunties, the academia, they are not here…. Some feel tacky being part of these issues."

Chandni Athi, 19, an undergraduate student from Gargi College in Delhi, spent all morning urging friends to join the march. Of the 30 text messages she sent, she got only four responses from friends who wanted to walk with her: "They are not willing to go beyond the name. They have problems with the word slut. They hear it and go, OMG!" she said. "They told me, you can do everything but that won’t stop [men] from teasing."

Oddly, men appeared to outnumber women among the marchers, though most said that they were there to support the cause. Ashish Kumar, 25, a banker, brought male friends, but said he could not convince his sisters to join him: They were busy working.

Kumar said he has worked to protect his sisters and his friend’s sisters from harassers and overstrict parents. He told a story about a man who stalked his sister to the extent that Kumar’s family complained to the police. But the process of filing suit was so complicated that they ended up dropping it, and there was no other redress.

"Because of this," he said, "we can’t let [his sisters] out of the house at night. This is a crime-filled city."

The problem of isolating the victim is exactly what sparked the concept of SlutWalk in the first place. When Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti made the "sluts" comment to a class of students at York University in January, he inadvertently sparked a movement. The idea has since spread to London, Chicago, Amsterdam, Sao Paulo, and Sydney.

Two months ago, 19-year-old Umang Sabharwal, an undergraduate student at Kamala Nehru College in Delhi, decided to organize a local version. An organizing committee, mostly college students, arranged a number of street plays and debates to spread awareness about gender stereotypes and sexual violence against women in public places.

A week before the event, on July 24, the students held the last of three forums on Jantar Mantar Road in Delhi to prepare. Sitting on the sidewalk were a dozen participants who shared anecdotes about their experiences with violence against women. One man, who wished to remain anonymous, told how his wife had been beaten by police officers during their eviction.

Pallavi Sharma, 17, a high school student, said she reported a man who used to harass her over the phone — and was blamed for it by the cops.

"I grew balls and called the cops and this is what happened," she said. "We have to come up with more creative ways to counteract this."

The group also discussed so-called dowry deaths: women who are tortured and often killed by husbands who seek to extract greater dowries from their in-laws. Dowries were made illegal in India in 1961, but the practice, deeply rooted in thousands of years of tradition, remains commonplace.

Over the course of an hour, the two female police officers sent to monitor the conversation were gradually pulled into it, and one began talking about the financial burden of having a female child, who must be married off and whose earnings go to her husband. "You talk with passion now," said one of them. "When you have a girl child, you will realize: I used to think like you; now I think like my mother."

At Sunday’s SlutWalk, the talk was less about dowry deaths and more about the issues at hand: trying to reclaim the public space for women and discourage harassment. The organizers had arranged for two hours of slogans, placards, music, and drama, after which the march came to a quiet halt.

Was it a success? I asked one of the organizers, Trishla Singh, 20, an English major at Kamala Nehru College. "We have received a kind of resistance, but we have a strong resolve," she said. But the real key may be changing how India talks about women — not just on the street, but from the day they’re born.

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