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Indian SlutWalk marches amidst conservative concerns

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New Delhi

Dozens of young women and men, flanked by scores of curious onlookers, marched for 20 minutes in the heart of the Indian capital Sunday as part of the SlutWalk, a global drive against sexual violence.

Even as older Indians and the right-wing Hindu groups condemned the march, more than 100 protesters shouted angry slogans, enacted street plays and carried placards saying “I Have Nothing To Be Ashamed of,” “Stop Staring” and “Walk of No Shame.” In India, protesters were not skimpily clad as many were in walks in other cities.

“We are different from the international SlutWalk. Unfortunately, the whole debate has been dragged down to miniskirts the world over. This has prompted the conservative Hindu groups here to frown upon us, too. But only 1 percent of our focus is on women’s clothes,” said Mallika Trehan, an 18-year-old marcher wearing a long Indian tunic and pants.

Several men and women came to the march Sunday because they said they disapproved of the campaign.

“I am worried. Where is India going? Now our women are fighting for their right to wear less? Women cannot wear tiny clothes and go out at night and expect men to worship them. They cannot then blame the police and the government,” said Anil Ruhila, 50, who came with his wife. “Our culture does not allow such vulgar debates. Women have to be modest. My wife is fully clothed, nobody stares at her.”

A spokesperson for the Hindu right-wing group the Vishwa hindu Parishad, Vinod Bansal, had earlier warned the marchers not to “cross the limits of decency and shame, or they will have to face the consequences.”

To appeal to the traditional Indian psyche and make it more inclusive, the organizers softened the word “slut” by adding the Hindi word “shamelessness” to the title of the march. SlutWalk, a campus campaign against the social perception that women provoke sexual violence by the way they dress, began in Toronto. The protest mobilized scores of young women online and spread to the United States, Europe, Australia, South Korea and South Africa. The walk began in April after a Toronto police officer said that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”

About half of India’s 1.2 billion population are under age 25, and the country is urbanizing rapidly and embracing global cultures. More and more young women are entering the workforce and living away from their families. But social attitudes towards women continue to remain somewhat conservative.

Many placards and banners spoke against staring, a ubiquitous phenomenon faced by women in India.

“Indian men feel it is their right to stare at women. Our parents tell us to ignore it. But staring is where it all begins,” said Saanvri Kapoor, a 19-year old economics student. “How many of us know that the law says staring for more than 30 seconds is a punishable offence?”

The marchers walked past a church, the Bible society and an 18th-century observatory called the Jantar Mantar under the watchful eyes of scores of police officers who walked alongside.

A 26-year-old mother, Nishta Gautam, walked with her 2-year-old daughter in her arms, and a bag of diapers, milk and water bottles on her shoulder.

“I want to make sure that my girl does not grow up to face harassment the way my generation does,” she said.

© The Washington Post Company