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Talk the walk

Nothing’s gonna stop us now: Slutwalk, now being touted as a revival of the feminist movement after decades, is expected to arrive in India in July. Is it a self indulgent frivolity or a cause worth letting it all hang out for?
Hindustan Times | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON JUN 21, 2011 11:27 AM IST

A temper tantrum for a lollypop
Palash Krishna Mehrotra
He’s going to Slutwalk — to watch

Two stories to start things off. I went for a scholarship interview at the IIC. I was wearing a ponytail, a stubble and kurta-pyjama. In other words, I was in regulation Rez uniform. The panel, comprising mostly of lawyers, didn’t ask me a single question about my subject, philosophy. Instead, they stereotyped me in an instant, and engaged me in a discussion about pornography and pot. I didn’t get the scholarship. Not one to give up so easily, I was back next year, this time having shaved, and wearing a pin-striped shirt with trousers and formal shoes.

The panel of hawks asked me serious questions about India going nuclear. They awarded me the scholarship, even though it was generally agreed upon that I was taking the “trendy Praful Bidwai position.” Still, my moral and political arguments weren’t as important to them as the way I looked. While walking out, I could hear them saying amongst themselves, “He’s finally cleaned up his act.” “Ha ha, yeah, good for him.” That’s what really mattered.

In the second story, a friend of mine is bicycling around Lutyen’s Delhi, clad only in clingy orange shorts. It’s a hot night, so he’s decided to leave his t-shirt at home. He’s stopped by the cops, put behind bars. His shirtlessness is a problem, but so is his goatee. The police are convinced that he is an ISI agent. Only ISI agents cycle around after midnight, wearing little but their goatee beards.

Both these stories point up the mundane truth that the way we look matters in the world, and to the world. Human beings are superficial creatures; we go by appearances, even though we are often fooled in this regard, both in love and at the workplace. I am a bohemian, a libertarian, an anarchist. God knows, I am so many things. But that’s me. It doesn’t change the world around me, which will always be a sucker for the image. So, as we grow older, we make peace with this terrible little fact. There are many things one wants to do openly but can’t because society doesn’t like it. We find other ways. For there is always a way.

In the debate about what women can wear, we have to also talk about what men are allowed to wear. Just like men can’t go to office wearing shorts and slippers, neither can women. Do muscle-bound hunks work corporate jobs wearing leather singlets? Would they be taken seriously if they did that? And if the girl in the next cubicle passed a compliment about his biceps, should he take offence?

The debate is not just about clothes. It’s about the pushes and pulls of society, and finding a tightrope which allows one to totter on one’s own terms, as much as is possible. There are many things I’d like to do but can’t. I’d like to walk around M Block market with a cold can of beer on a muggy June evening. I’d like to drop half a tab of E, and dance naked in the first rains of the monsoon or browse for books in Crossword smoking a Drum roll-up. But I can’t.

Women say that they should have the freedom to wear what they want, without men (and women) stereotyping their moral core. Sure, I agree with you, but doesn’t this sound a little naïve? After all, we live in the real world, and we are constantly projecting an image, manipulating it all the time. We judge strangers in a split second; is it any surprise then, that they’d do the same to us?

Seen in this way, the Slut Walk seems more like a burst of childish indignation, of not being allowed to have one’s way all the time. Call it Facebook feminism or the Bubble Gum Parade, it just doesn’t strike me as a genuine grouse. It’s a good excuse to have a street party and meet one’s friends. Come July I’ll be there too, watching the girls hang it all out. Come on, don’t kill me now. After all I’m just a guy.

(Mehrotra is a writer and the author of Eunuch Park)

Butt Brigade takes on But Brigade
Kanika Gahlaut
She’s going to Slutwalk — to support it

The problem with anything to do with women’s rights is that way too many people will say ‘it’s a very good idea in principle, but...’

Slutwalk — which took off earlier this year when a few thousand women took to the streets to protest a Canadian cop’s statement that if women want to avoid sexual attack, they should stop dressing up like sluts — is another example of how little things have changed since the days women got to vote, went on the pill, began to storm male bastions....

Of course anybody can wear what they want, BUT there’s reality to consider, no? Or, equality is a good idea, BUT will this stereotype women further?

Now here’s a movement where taking on the But Brigade is the Butt Brigade.

By outing their inner sluts, women are striking at the very core of the hypocrisy that continues to demean and humiliate us even though we’ve come so far in the battle of equality.

Nobody, says the Butt Brigade, asks to be attacked, even if they’re sluts. And secondly, who’s anybody to decide what, or who, is “like a slut”?

Slutwalk aims to make the word slut, which does not have a male equivalent, so mainstream that it ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. If you make sluttishness as commonplace as, say, lollipop, you divorce it from the words “she’s asking for it”, which is what sluts, supposedly, allegedly, do.

You can’t argue against that. But no, depending on which part of the world you’re in, the But Brigade is whining away. In India, reservations expressed are: BUT even wearing salwar kameez gets women raped here, why would a Slutwalk in Saket prove any point?

And, BUT women in India have far more problems, like female foeticide and dowry. In comparison to the right to life and the right to dignity, the right to dress like a slut or behave like a tart is a self indulgent frivolity.

Strange. Because Slutwalk has a precedence in the Pink Chaddi campaign, the answer to loonies who thought that women in pubs deserve to be slapped around. This is a country where lawyers have offered the argument that a woman was of “objectionable character” in rape case hearings. Cops advise girls to dress conservatively to avoid unwanted male attention. And a film actress was harassed for promoting safe sex. Women are held up to some crazy ideal — and not just by loonies. Anybody who’s dated here will have met a specimen or two who has, in his head, kept the good time girl (slut) and the girl to take home to mummy (wife material) as distinct from each other.

And sure, empowering Other India is important. But how come the But Brigade is silent when Indians make it to world rich lists even as millions continue to stay below the poverty line? And if corporate India’s concerns are important to take the India Shining story forward, you can’t keep the ladies out of the picture. One up(wo)manship in the workplace — trust us, some of us have been there — are games played in a large part not between the haves and the have nots, but between equals who win — or lose — through mind games. And if men are going about toning their abs to get a psychological advantage on the paan-chewing slobs, women have every right to throw colleagues off by wearing the tarty Russian Red lipper by MAC to the boardroom. You can’t say that when men do it, it’s strategy and when women do it, it’s sluttiness.

On the surface Slutwalk is about appearance but it is ultimately about changing mindsets. A critique of the 70s so called “bra burning” feminist movement — god bless those lovely ladies — is that women fought to be treated “like men”. Feminism 2011 is about the right to be women as women. We dress and think differently, our emotional and sexual wiring is different — Slutwalk symbolises a fight for that difference to be respected, not ridiculed or attacked.

‘One needs to go to the extreme to drive home the point’

Shalini Ganguli, 29,
Advertising professional, Delhi

Given the long hours we keep in advertising, comfort is the most important factor for me when dressing for work. The culture in our field has become such that no one cares about how you dress. I wear what I would lounge in at home like track pants and a spaghetti top. So I wear what I like but I wouldn’t dress indecently to work. Shorts and t-shirt would work, while hot pants and a tube top wouldn’t.

Theoretically, I support the Slutwalk. In essence it says that women should wear what they want. Every part of her body may say ‘yes’ but if her mouth says ‘no’ it’s a ‘no’. This is a utopian idea and one needs to go the extreme to drive home the point else people don’t get it. But I wouldn’t support it by dressing like a slut to prove a point. Something like fishnet stockings, miniskirt and boots would be fine at a theme party. No matter how scantily clad a woman is, a man should have control at all times. She doesn’t need to test if he’s going to rape her by dressing a certain way. I wouldn’t wear a spaghetti top to Chandni Chowk. I’m conscious of what I am wearing and where.

India has turned out to be the fourth most unsafe place for women so while Slutwalk may be a way to get home the message, I am not saying it’s the best way. It could invite more criticism and then that may lead to more frustration. (As told to Shalini Singh)

‘I was judged by my clothes, but I persisted and got through it’

Nilanjana Dey, 24
Public relations executive, Mumbai One morning last week, Nilanjana Dey signed into her Twitter account and saw something called ‘Slutwalk’ trending on the microblogging site. Intrigued, she googled the term.

As a young woman with a keen sense of style who has rebelled all her working life against buttoned-up shirts and rules against sleeveless tops, she could identify with the women’s campaign to reclaim their bodies and their right to dress as they pleased.

“Manoeuvring my way around a stipulated dress code has not been easy,” says the dusky young Kolkatan.

While Dey never considered changing her personal style to suit the conventions of her workplace, she did make a few adjustments. “When I joined as an intern, my boss pointed out rather severely that I should not have come to work in jeans on a day I was meeting with a client,” she says. “Now, I wear tube skirts or formal pants on such days. I don't wear low necklines to work. But I’ve kept all my frilly tops and sleeveless kurtis. What can I say? I just like dressing up.”

— Humaira Ansari

‘Given my no-nonsense demeanour it doesn’t matter if my back is exposed’

Anwesha Mandal, 24
Fashion photographer
Women behind the lens are a rarity in the world of fashion photography. “Mine is a movement-based job and I work on sets peopled by men but that doesn’t mean I should go covered from head to foot,” she says. She pairs comfortable pants with a spaghetti strap or cutaway top.

Clothes have never been an issue, she says, admitting, however, that it probably helps that she is in charge; people are more likely to keep their opinions to themselves. “Of course, I did have to learn a few techniques to ensure I stayed in total command of my set,” says Mandal. “I consciously developed an extra-stern front for the workplace. Most of the people I work with have no idea that I am actually a very vivacious and friendly person.”

The ruse worked. “Given my very strict demeanour and no-nonsense attitude, it doesn’t matter if my back is exposed or my bra strap is showing,” says Mandal. “They know who’s boss.”

— Humaira Ansari

‘I don’t like being told what I shouldn’t wear — it depends on how you carry it’

Smita Bhattacharya, 26
Content manager, Delhi

She is a bohemian at heart. Her work as a training and development content manager with Planman Consulting entails that Smita Bhattacharya meets people from diverse backgrounds, understands their requirements and makes presentations before them.

Her office requires them to dress ‘sensibly’, says Bhattacharya. “But I don’t like being told what I should ‘not’ wear. I know sensible is a subjective term, but I do keep in mind where I’m going and who I’m meeting. Having said that, it depends on how you carry yourself. If you have the right attitude, you’ll look great no matter what you wear.”

In her office, Bhattacharya sticks mainly to western outfits. “Wearing skirts is a convenient option. Sometimes, we wear dresses too, but that has never got lewd comments from any of our co-workers.”

Bhattacharya recently stumbled upon a Facebook page devoted to the Slutwalk Delhi chapter. “It seemed like a great concept,” she says. “I love partying and dressing up. If people start making judgments about you depending on what you wear, it speaks volumes about the kind of people they are.”

— Shreya Sethuraman

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