A young man follows a teenage girl along a street in India’s capital on a recent muggy morning, leering. The girl, wearing jeans topped with a long tunic, quickens her steps. As the man closes in, she covers her mouth with her hands. Bystanders cover their eyes.
Then everybody freezes in place.
The two had just acted out the first scene of a street play about sexual harassment and social acquiescence that Indian university students have been performing across the city as part of the run-up to SlutWalk Delhi, India’s version of the campus campaign that began in Toronto in April and has since spread to Argentina, Australia, Britain, Germany, South Korea and the United States.
The walk, designed as a protest against a Canadian police officer who advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts” if they want to be safe from sexual assault, has elsewhere involved women dressing as provocatively as they please. But in India, the SlutWalk set for this coming Sunday is getting a makeover, with student organizers saying they have tweaked the original concept to better match India’s conservative social palette.
The confrontational “slut” has been softened by adding the Hindi word for “shamelessness” to the event’s title. Women have been asked to march in their regular clothes. And weekly public debates and street theater are being promoted even more energetically than the walk itself.
Rather than focusing on clothes, the campaign is questioning gender stereotypes embedded in ancient Hindu religious epics, Bollywood movies and sexist matrimonial classified ads.
“There will be no dress code” for the march, said Umang Sabarwal, 19, the event’s chief organizer. “In India, no matter what we wear, even if we are covered head to toe in a sari or a burqa, we get molested and raped. A woman’s fight in India is more basic — it is a fight for the right to be born, education, nutritious food, work.”
New Delhi, a city of about 16.7 million, has reported 258 cases of rape or molestation through June this year, and women in the city routinely face harassment in buses and on the metro system. SlutWalk Delhi has Twitter and Facebook accounts, but in an effort to be more inclusive, march organizers have also begun distributing pamphlets, titled “Speak Up,” to women in the city.
“We want to reach a larger audience, beyond the campus and the Facebook crowd,” said Mishika Singh, 20, a law student and a walk coordinator.
The young English-speaking students also find themselves having to work hard to secure the backing of an older generation of feminists who prefer to be more culturally rooted. When they approached the government-run National Commission for Women and other women’s organizations for funding and support, they were rebuffed.
“I agree with the cause, but the packaging is wrong,” said Ranjana Kumari, a leading feminist who heads the Center for Social Research. “I tried to counsel the students not to alienate the majority of Indian women. The Indian feminist movement took many decades to recover from the damage caused by the American bra-tossing campaigns. Let us not ape the West unnecessarily and trivialize our fight.”
Still, India is urbanizing rapidly and embracing global culture. Two-thirds of the country’s 1.2 billion people are younger than 35, and many young women say they are battling the same stereotypes as elsewhere.
Shefalee Vasudev, a fashion columnist for the Indian Express newspaper, wrote this month: “Damn the intellectuals. SlutWalk is actually about clothes, about what we wear and how. That’s why if we all turn up in ‘decent clothes’ for the SlutWalk, we may not be able to make the point.”
Amid rising crime against women, the city’s police commissioner offered some advice last week. “You can’t travel alone at 2 a.m. and then say Delhi is not safe,” B.K. Gupta said. “It would be ideal if a woman takes her brother or driver along.”
Two years ago, a young woman was killed while going home late from work. Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, caused a public outcry at the time when she said that women should not be “adventurous.”
Prateeka Nanda, 19, an undergraduate volunteer, said: “We hear such advice all the time from our parents. The restrictions are always put on women, never on the men. Men do not own the public space. We want to reclaim it.”
Last Sunday, the central Indian town of Bhopal was the scene of India’s first SlutWalk. Only 50 people showed up. The organizers said parents did not allow their daughters to participate.