The Delhi Slutwalk & Media Coverage

Posted: August 10, 2011

So, the Delhi Slutwalk/Besharmi Morcha went off peacefully a little more than a week ago – despite opposition from some quarters. 700 people attended, which is not a small number, especially when you consider that this protest was organised by a small group of college students, with little access to mass media or any major campaign support.

I must confess that I was not a big supporter of Slutwalk to begin with. I have no issues at all with the objectives – Blank Noise has been doing  excellent work on the same lines – it’s just that I felt the objectives would not be clear to potential participants. To me, the message was first and foremost this: My body is my own, and don’t you dare touch me without my consent. I felt that this message would get diffused as a right to wear ‘revealing’ clothes and be seen as the concern of an elite group. Not that women shouldn’t have the right to wear what we want, but it is not just about clothes – it is about finding any excuse at all to harass women – being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, being out at all – in a country like India, clothes are not the only or first justification used.

Curiously, a lot of the media coverage on Slutwalk Delhi mentions the clothes the participants were wearing – and in a ‘disappointed’ sort of way. Mint says, “…much to the chagrin of cameramen looking for ‘sexy’ footage, the volunteers were dressed conservatively in loose-fitting T-Shirts with the logo, ‘SlutWalk arthaat Besharmi Morcha 2011’, printed across.”  One has to ask, t-shirts are “conservative” by whose standards? The judgement could have been skipped, methinks.

The Hindu is among the newspapers with a more neutral report on Slutwalk. The TOI report too was quite balanced – even though it mentions the lack of ‘skimpy clothes’, at least it has enough on the actual events at the protest. As for the Hindustan Times, while it’s Slutwalk report focuses on the event, they actually have a photo slideshow of participants called Delhi Slutwalk Style Parade – unbelievable, you’d think but no!

IBN says, “The general notion that went around was that women will be dressed skimpy and revealing clothes as was the trend in other editions of the walk. But ‘Besharmi Morcha’ saw women strutting the streets carrying off the usual plain look wearing simple jeans-shirts, salwar-kurta and shirts.” DNA says, “The rally was held amid tight security but unlike in other parts of the world, women participants didn’t dress provocatively here.” The Indian Express uses similiar language about provocative clothing.

Dear Journalists, Slutwalk was not about “dressing provocatively”. Slutwalk worldwide was about women’s right to live safe and unharassed – and women wore many different kinds of clothes at protests around the world. There is a fantastic blogpost here, This is what a slutwalk looks like, that documents the diversity of people and clothing at rallies around the world.

And finally, don’t our journalists see the irony of using language like ‘dress provocatively’ when reporting on a rally where the whole point is that it is criminals who attack, not victims or clothing that ‘provokes’?

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

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  1. Your last line asks it as it should be asked:

    “don’t our journalists see the irony of using language like ‘dress provocatively’ when reporting on a rally where the whole point is that it is criminals who attack, not victims or clothing that ‘provokes’?”

  2. [i]To me, the message was first and foremost this: My body is my own, and don’t you dare touch me without my consent.[/i]

    This is a much better expressed objective.

    A dress code is hardly the biggest problem facing most of the women of India.

    I think of the freedoms that the Taliban take away from the women of Afghanistan. They do impose the burqa. But they also take away the right to go unescorted out of the house, right to see a male physician, right to go to school, right to work, and so on.

    If they were forced to choose, which rights would Afghan women want back first? I imagine the burqa would be the last, at least from the ones I enumerated above.

    I would think the problems women have start with their unequal status as daughters as compared to sons; unequal schooling, unequal job or self-employment prospects, difficulty in traveling/commuting safely and harassment-free, unequal workplace. Perhaps lack of say in their own marriages? I simply don’t see the existence of a dress code, onerous though it may be,as the primary problem.

    However, the way the author has phrased the objective of slutwalk makes it meaningful. It then applies immediately to some of the rights and abilities that I listed.

  3. Arun, the way it has been expressed here is exactly the way the organisers intended it… and the way Slutwalk around the world has been conceived. The Indian mainstream media missed the point or were unable to grasp it and propogated their own bigotry. Anyone who was really curious about the walk could have simply googled and read what it was theorised to be internationally, even when women wore ostensibly provocative clothes. It was definitely about bigger issues than dress code for anyone who cared to think a little more deeply about it.

    However, even if it was about dress code, so what? This idea of judging what is the ‘biggest problem’ and insisting that women only tackle those is odd. Women in Afghanistan may or may not have chosen to fight against the burkha, that is up to them. However, women in France have chosen to fight for their right to wear the veil. This may seem like a small thing to you, it may be symptomatic of bigger things to them – and they have articulated their reasons. Women in Saudi Arabia have chosen to fight for the right to drive, this was also seen as a small thing, but one woman pointed out that maybe it’s easier to start small.

  4. @Shail – thanks.

    @Arun – I would be wary of saying that one should not press for the right to dress as one wants. My feeling is that if one polled a large number of women in India, this right may not be first on their list – as you’ve pointed out. Nevertheless, if someone feels strongly about it, it is still valid – because clothing is not just about clothing. It is really about the right to be seen as an individual with rights over one’s body, regardless of what one wears, or where one walks. My concern is about reducing it all to just clothes – which is what most media is doing.

    @The Bride – thanks for that lucid comment. (and may I say how much I appreciate all your lucid comments on different posts 🙂

  5. The Bride,

    Thank you for your reply. I must say you know how to win friends and influence people. A world of you would put Dale Carnegie out of business.

    I wouldn’t blame the Indian mainstream media; most of English media that I followed has covered Slutwalk not as a woman’s right to not be molested, but as a protest against any type of dress code. I don’t think Google would have helped much.

    We encounter dress codes all over the place – you cannot enter various restaurants or to work at a corporate headquarters without following a dress code. Then there are less stringently implemented codes but nevertheless required by etiquette. All that Slutwalk was presented to be was almost like a hippie movement not wanting to have any dress code, dress codes being so onerous and all.

    If was about dress code – so what? you ask. Well, I think you’ve lost most of your audience.

    This judging of what is the biggest problem? Surely dying from treatable conditions because you aren’t allowed to consult a male physician is not a small problem, no? It is not my scale of values; certainly life is at the top of the list of any humane set of values; the others are derivative. Emancipation begins with the additional liberties to the most oppressed, no?

    When I visited my town in India after a gap of several years, I noticed many more women clad in the burqa moving around on their own than had ever been there when I was growing up in that town. Which was it, I wondered. Were women becoming/forced into being more conservative? Or were women who were seldom allowed outside of the house before, now allowed to go about their day on their own? Suppose it was the latter, and it was because they were willing to comply with a dress code, then despite that possibly onerous requirement, isn’t it an improvement? If it was about dress code, wouldn’t an anti-dress code protest simply force these women back indoors again?

  6. Aparna,

    In my estimation, Slutwalk is a miserable failure because it couldn’t get its message straight.

    There is an objective scale of values, regardless of how strongly one feels about something. It doesn’t invalidate anything, it just makes it less important if it is about a dress code, than if it is about attacks on women.

  7. Arun – from a communication perspective, if a large number of people didn’t get the intended message, yes, it hasn’t worked well enough. I wouldn’t call it a complete failure though – 700 isn’t a small number, besides the ripple effect created from discussions (like the one we are having!) Small initiatives can grow, if they’re not done as a one-time thing – which we’ll have to wait and watch.

    I’d not excuse media though – they have a job to research and report better. No Slutwalk group presented their objectives as only about the right to dress – a little research would have shown that to media very easily, but of course, the desire to show “slutwalk fashion parades” etc trumps rationality.

  8. Arun, I can only assume you are being sarcastic about the winning friends thing. I am the last person to win friends, particularly because of my tendency to comments such as the above, but that’s ok with me.

    “I wouldn’t blame the Indian mainstream media; most of English media that I followed has covered Slutwalk not as a woman’s right to not be molested, but as a protest against any type of dress code.” Exactly. That’s why I would blame them. They misunderstood or chose to misunderstand or didn’t take the trouble to understand or are incapable of understanding. What surprised me was not that a few misunderstood but that everyone seemed to take the same line.

    “I don’t think Google would have helped” Well, I googled and it helped me. Particularly, this one (“ which articulates the rationale for the original Slutwalk. I just googled and so many more nuanced articles came up from the international media. So I assume that if people choose to believe that it was just a silly protest about dress, that is what they want to believe.

    Slutwalk was not presented as a hippie movement by its organisers, it was presented as such by the media and in particular the Indian media.

    I’m sorry but I will disagree with you on whether we should be sitting in judgement about what is worthy of protest. By that logic, no one in the developed world should protest about anything because there are people with much more serious problems elsewhere.

    I won’t get into a discussion about the burkha and the merits or demerits about dress code in general here as that is another big discussion in itself.

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