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In support of the Besharmi Morcha/'Slutwalk'

Aug 05, 2011

Delhi’s recent 'Slutwalk' march against sexual harassment sparked much debate - from its nomenclature to relevance. Academician Pratiksha Baxi contends that the idea behind the campaign is to break silence, protest aloud and reclaim a woman’s autonomy.

New Delhi: There has been much debate on whether the naming of the recent protest against violence against women in the city as ‘slut walking’ is a serious modality of protest for women, or simply mimetic of a western model of protest. 

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Is it feminist to reclaim the word 'slut' to describe all women, or does it trivialise the project of feminism, which begins to reclaim the world by renaming the word? Is its re-naming of ‘Slut Walk’ as ‘Besharmi Morcha’ (in India) really radical? Is the fact that young middle class students’ articulations equate the city with its elite? Are these students merely articulating their protest through categories that intend to shock, trivialise or titillate the many publics in the city?

Yet, is it not really admirable how a group of young students have dealt with the avalanche of criticism from all ideological quarters? How about a little bit of solidarity to one of the few ventures in Indian cities that has brought the issue of safety of women back on the agenda?

Why can we not link interpretations of "besharmi" (roughly translated to mean shameful in northern India) to our lived experiences, which are not confined to what we wear and whether we walk alone on the streets of a city at night? Who is this "besharam woman"? Is she not me or you?

A woman who does not marry is without shame. 

A woman who enjoys her sexuality is without shame.

A woman who raises her children without a husband is without shame. 

A woman who marries of her choice is without shame.

A woman who smokes or drinks is without shame. 

A woman who laughs loudly is without shame.

A woman who goes to work is without shame. 

A woman who travels alone is without shame.

A woman who talks about her husband beating her is without shame. 

A woman who files a police complaint of rape is without shame.

A woman who protests is besharam

A woman who exercises her autonomy is besharam.

We are told repeatedly that a besharam woman should be confined and regulated. She is routinely stigmatised, medicalised, sexualised, maimed, stalked, harassed, raped, burnt or killed.

The idea of the Besharami Morcha refuses silence. It proposes protest. It reclaims the very idea of women’s autonomy, in the very categories that men use to divest women of their autonomy.The Besharami Morcha uses the category of shame to inverse it – to challenge the meaning of what it means to be without shame, to question why women are thought to be without shame when they make choices, protest against injustice and fight for their dignity. It attempts to create a community or even a movement to fight against the injustice of tolerating violence.

If it is an experiment to name violence in an ironical way, why has this irony met with overwhelming patronising sermonising from older activists, and unwanted excitable attention from the media?

Perhaps some change may follow the efforts of the Besharmi Morcha, perhaps not? But since we tried, and abysmally failed – perhaps it is time now to support a new modality of protest rather than demoralise a younger generation that demands change. 

It is really very simple. In India, for women to reclaim their rights whatever their class, caste or community, it amounts to attracting an allegation of being without shame. Surely we have all been besharam for a good part of our lifetimes, and one would hope that we will continue to be – if being autonomous continues to mean being besharam in our culture? 

(The writer is an assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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