Delhi SlutWalk: 'Men don't own the public space!'
Sahim Salim speaks to the bold young women who are organising Delhi's first-ever 'SlutWalk' to fight against sexual harassment in the capital.
Delhi is often referred to as the 'rape capital' of India. And for good reason too. If statistics are disaggregated, every day more than one woman is raped on the streets of the city. What's more, one in every four cases of rape in Indian cities is registered in Delhi, which, incidentally, has a lady on the seat of Chief Minister.
So it is apt that of all Indian metros, Toronto's SlutWalk should make its way here.
The comment of Canadian police official Michael Sanguinetti in January this year that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised", which sparked the first protest in Toronto, is all too familiar to Delhiites.
In 2005, after a girl from Northeast India was raped in Delhi, the Vice Principal of Kirori Mal College in Delhi University said, "There should be a separate dress code for Northeast students, particularly girls", hinting that the victim's dress was the reason for her rape. The Vice Principal also stated that "revealing dresses" worn by girls from India's Northeast triggered "angry responses" from men.
Add to that a statement by the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, after a female journalist was attacked and murdered when she was on her way back home after work: "All by herself till 3 am at night in a city where people believe...you know...you should not be so adventurous."
Image: Organising Delhi's 'SlutWalk': Umang Sabarwal (left) and Mishika Singh
Photographs: Sahim Salim
'I myself had not anticipated such a response'
Repeated instances of crime against women in Delhi, with the blame laid on the fairer sex, have disillusioned a group of female students. A simple act of rebellion by one of them, 19-year-old Umang Sabarwal, resulted in overwhelming responses from Delhi women. In response to Umang's page on Facebook, inviting women to a SlutWalk on the streets of the capital, thousands of women showed their solidarity. So vast was the response that Umang had to actually postpone her event and enlist the support of many more like-minded women to organise the event.
"I myself had not anticipated such a response. A group of us in college had an umpteen number of discussions on the issue of safety of women in Delhi. We all wanted to do something about it. That was when I read about the SlutWalk in Toronto. When the movement was going on, we were giving our college exams. So my like-minded group could not really discuss it further. Not wanting to postpone it, I created a page on Facebook, inviting women for a similar walk in the last week of June," Umang says.
Almost instantly, in a matter of three days, the page spread like fire on Facebook and Umang received over 5,000 responses before she could even discuss the protest with her group.
Image: People take part in the Slutwalk protest in Toronto April 3, 2011
Photographs: Mark Blinch/Reuters
'You are taught not to respond to teasing'
Says another student from the 'core committee' of organisers, Mishika Singh, "Pretty soon, we had to enlist the services of about 15 like-minded women. While most of us are from the same college, we had to take help from web-designers for publicity. So at present, there are 15 of us organising the SlutWalk."
Mishika Singh and Umang Sabarwal became close after they met in Lakshya, the theatre group of their college. Both are students of journalism (honours) from Kamla Nehru College of Delhi University.
"We, as female students have experienced sexual harassment in one form or another. Men think that they own the public space and that they can pass comments on us as and when they feel the need. That is what we intend to change -- the whole concept of public space must change. Women normally never respond when men try to show them that they own the public space. It is everywhere. You are taught not to respond to teasing -- be it in a bus or in any public space," says Mishika.
"There is a specialised compartment for the women in Delhi metros. Men just stand at the edge of these compartments and stare at you all the while, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of a separate compartment," Umang says.
Image: A woman takes part in the 'Marcha das Vagabundas' (SlutWalk) protest in Sao Paulo June 4, 2011
Photographs: Nacho Doce/Reuters
'I carry a pin whenever I travel in a bus to fend off would-be molesters'
Unlike the SlutWalk held in Toronto, Boston, Chicago and Hamilton, the SlutWalk in Delhi does not encourage fishnet stockings, see-throughs or micro-minis.
"Women in Delhi are harassed irrespective of what they wear. A girl in a salwar kameez is sexually harassed as much as a girl in so-called 'revealing' clothes. There is no dress code for the SlutWalk in Delhi. Women can wear what they please," Mishika says.
Shivani Kala, a student of Jamia Milia University, is one of the women who is attending the walk. She did her graduation from Hindu College in Delhi University and has undergone all the horrors a female student goes through in the capital.
Says Shivani, "I used to undertake a one hour-long bus journey from my home to college. It is unbelievable how helpless you can be in a crowded bus. Once, a man physically assaulted me inside a bus. It was so crowded that I could not even see the face of my attacker. I screamed, but nobody, not even the women came to my help. After I got off, I sat down at the bus stop opposite my college and cried for about an hour because of the humiliation. An elderly woman, who had seen my ordeal in the bus sat down next to me and without uttering a word, gave me a safety pin. I have that pin with me till date and I carry it whenever I travel in a bus," says Shivani.
Image: SlutWalk participants cheer a speaker in Trafalgar Square, central London, June 11, 2011
Photographs: Olivia Harris/Reuters
'I have seen what my female friends have gone through'
As of now, 12,000 people have enlisted their support for the cause. Actress Gul Panag has vowed to support the Walk, as have various NGOs and activists. But the organising girls feel something is still missing.
"The people who responded are mostly women who have access to the Internet. The whole concept of this movement was to educate women that they don't have to move around in fear and this includes women in the rural areas as well. So we have postponed the Walk to the last week of July. In the time we have before that, we will conduct awareness campaigns and hold street plays in villages across Delhi to enlist support from these women too," Mishika says.
Street plays are not something new for these girls. They have travelled across Delhi to perform and they hope they can capitalise on their months of experience to enlist support for their Walk.
The movement has garnered support not only from their own sex, but from men as well.
"It was amazing. We have received some brilliant responses from men as well. It is encouraging that not all men indulge in sexual harassment and that they fell for us and our cause," says Mishika.
Jatin Anand, a journalist with the Hindustan Times, who has enlisted to walk with the "sluts", says, "I studied in Delhi University and I have seen what my female friends have gone through. This is a brilliant idea, really, and they have my full support."
Image: People attend a rally in Trafalgar Square during SlutWalk in London June 11, 2011
Photographs: Kevin Coombs/Reuters
'We will provide the necessary security and support when sought'
Another aspect that these college girls have to take into consideration is crowd management. If responses on Facebook are to be believed, 12,000 people will take part in the SlutWalk.
"Yes, we are aware of the crowd management problems. For this very reason, we will make sure that we have at least 100 volunteers. We will have to take help from the Delhi police as well. A friend's father is a senior police officer in Delhi. We plan to seek his advice on crowd management," Mishika says.
The Delhi police, though not contacted by the group directly, are aware of the SlutWalk. Though an official permission is yet to be sought, cops say that they will provide protection and cops will deputed for crowd management.
"They have not approached us yet, but yes, we will provide the necessary security and support when sought," Additional Commissioner of Police (New Delhi district), KC Dwivedi says.
Image: Matagalpa Women's Network members take part in the 'March of Whores' in Matagalpa, June 11, 2011
Photographs: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters