The really dangerous part of Slutwalk Delhi is dodging media cameras and avoiding the mikes thrust in your face. When it starts, the media-aam junta ratio is 3:1, which leads to the spectacle of a reporter trying to persuade a younger colleague from another magazine to give her soundbytes. “You’re marching too, no? Say something as a woman, na?” The younger reporter declines.
By 11 am, the pace has picked up; I’m estimating a conservative 500 or so people–young girls, a healthy and heart-warming number of men, auntyjis and several stalwarts of the gay rights movement in Delhi–have joined in. Depending on when they join in with the Slutwalkers, the media has the numbers at 200–far too low, even if you subtract the organisers and Asmita’s street theatre troupe–or at 700, which seems optimistic. I see a young lesbian couple wade through the crowds, swatting TV mikes like flies.
The media is all over Slutwalk, which is turning out to be a plain vanilla, sedate Jantar Mantar protest. Most of the marchers are carrying banners with slogans attacking Delhi’s history of violence against women: “Soch badal, kapre nahin”, “I have been HARASSED at least once in my life”, “Ab toh bol”, “Proud to be shameless”. One woman, carrying a banner that speaks of child abuse, is stopped several times. “I’ve lost count of the number of women who say this happened to them too, who were 12 or 14 the first time they experienced harassment and abuse,” she says. “It’s amazing, sharing our stories.”
This is so different from the skimpily-clad marchers dreamed up by the media and by the kind of leering men who’ve been trolling Slutwalk’s FB page. These few hundreds are nowhere near the kind of turnout Toronto had, with thousands of women taking to the streets in anger, but being here feels surprisingly good. The women police officers guarding the march tell me and another young woman: “Do this every year, then maybe the men will start to listen.”
The boys marching quietly, banners raised, watching politely as Asmita performs a street play, listening to Slutwalk’s young organiser, Umang Sabharwal, speak, are very clear about why they’re here. “It’s an issue for us,” says Deepak, a young college student. “Delhi men have the worst reputations, and many of us are here to say we’re not like that, and men shouldn’t be like that.”
The mothers marching in Slutwalk, two of them side-by-side, are bemused by the media. “They only want to photograph the foreigners and that one woman in small clothes,” says one of them. They’re here because a) they’re sick of being pushed around on buses and the Metro and b), because as Mrs Kumar says, “Why should only the young women march? We can also come out, this issue affects all of us.” Were they not put off by the name–Slutwalk, Besharmi Morcha? Mrs Kumar glares at the reporter who asked her this question. “You have time to waste thinking about names. Think about why Delhi is so unsafe for women, no? National capital, and look at the crime rates!”
The young women melting in the heat as we do the ritual march around Jantar Mantar, escorted by bands of police personnel, are clear about why they’re here, too. “I’m tired of the TV shows saying think about female foeticide first, think about dowry deaths first,” says Rina. “We have to live in this city and move around and you know, our fathers aren’t rich men that they have chauffeured cars. Doesn’t our safety matter? Look at the rapes, look at the harassment, aren’t Indians ashamed of what women have to face in Delhi?”
The men from the Greater Cooch Behar Association, on hunger strike in the cheerfully open-to-all protest bazaar that Jantar Mantar offers, are being steered back to their own tents by a reproachful minder. One of them is arguing that he should be allowed to join in the Slutwalk, but he’s being accused of wanting to sneak off to have an illicit ice cream on the side. Unfortunately for his protestations of innocence, his mouth is stained orange from a Kwality’s Orange Bar.
I’m thinking of the first Blank Noise protest in Delhi, a walk at night for which less than 20 women showed up, where a police escort was necessary to ensure the safety of that small, tentatively activist band. This is just a start, and the debate over the name and the meaning of Slutwalk almost hijacked the issues behind the walk. But it seems like a good start, to me, and to the people who’ve gathered here in the July heat. I’m reminded, by the numbers and by the conversations in the crowd, of the early, tentative beginnings of the Gay Rights parade a few years ago. There, too, there had been fears that the movement would be too insular, too self-referential and too niche. Here, the crowds are very different from the media’s expectations; this isn’t just the usual South Delhi protest veterans crew. “Where are the celebs, yaar?” a TV reporter is demanding. “There are no celebs, only ordinary-shordinary people. How will I get my bytes?”
I get stuck between two streams of marchers. One woman, to my right, is carrying a banner protesting female foeticide. She catches my slightly startled eye and shakes her head: “I didn’t make that,” she says. “I’m just carrying it for a friend, and no, I don’t know what it has to do with Slutwalk.”
To my left, though, is a hand-drawn banner that has drawn attention all through the march with a particularly baffling message. “Boys just eat grape and stop Girl Rape,” it says.
Despite the intensity of the media scrutiny, the number of police personnel who’ve thrown a cordon around the marchers because of threats from a Hindutva rightwing group, and the quietness of the march, this is a good way to begin. “I want to come back next year,” says Samira. She’s 27, and has had enough of Delhi. “It’s not about the clothes I’m wearing, it’s about the violence we face every day in this city. I’m so sick of it, but I’m here because it’s my city, and if I want things to change, then maybe I have to be here and be part of the change instead of just whining.” Would she want the name of the march changed? She shrugs. “Call it Slutwalk or anything you like,” she says. “So long as we have a regular protest, does it matter?”