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Last week, in a period of less than 72 hours, the state of Uttar Pradesh reported 12 cases of sexual violence against young girls and women. A teenage girl's eyes were gouged out after a failed rape attempt in Kannauj, a housewife was abducted, gang-raped and burnt alive in Etah, and a 13-year-old girl, missing for three days, was found raped and murdered in Gonda. Most of the victims were Dalits. But UP's Dalit chief minister Mayawati does not seem particularly perturbed.
During the same period, women in Delhi have been debating the idea of taking to the streets to protest the harrassment and violence that women in India face, although the trigger for this particular walk is not the crimes against the UP girls but a desire to participate in an international protest demonstration provocatively called the SlutWalk.
SlutWalk was born out of a careless remark that a Canadian policeman made at a talk organised at York University, but one that revealed how men, even in the developed world, think of women.
Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer, suggested that in order not to be victimised, "women should avoid dressing like sluts". The comment sparked off furious online rants and co-founders of SlutWalk, Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis, decided to appropriate the word slut in their demonstration. They expected at least 500 to show up, but nearly 3, 000 gathered at Queen's Park to march to the Toronto Police Headquarters.
Barnett and Jarvis wanted to speak up for women who "are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming;of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. " They wrote, "Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless of whether we participate in sex for pleasure or work. "
The protest march took the world by storm and soon there were marches in Sao Paulo, Chicago, Amsterdam, London, Dallas and Copenhagen.
When Umang Sabarwal, a third-year journalism student at Delhi's Kamla Nehru College, read about the Walk, she knew that she had to organise one in Delhi, a city notorious for its brutal treatment of women. However, it's not Delhi alone - a recent Reuters poll named India as the fourth most unsafe nation for women after Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan.
All over India, women who use public transport are always on guard, their bags held in a way to protect their bodies from gropers. If a man 'accidentally' touches you or passes a lewd comment, girls are taught to keep quiet and walk away. Many women even go to the extent of making themselves look and feel unattractive, so as to not attract attention. According to some statistics, only one in 69 rape cases in India is even reported.
Keeping quiet has become the norm. For every Bhanwari Devi, who chose to fight her rapists in court, there are 10 cases of girls who commit suicide because they can't live with the shame.
Umang Sabarwal wants women to speak up. Tired of warding off lascivious glances and touches, Umang, 19, would often - in class discussions and public discourse - question the inaction and silence. She and her friend, Mishika Singh, set up a Facebook page, inviting everyone who has ever been at the receiving end of a lewd comment or a groping hand to join the walk. The page, which has 18, 000 signatories, is now closed. The march will be held in July.
While the West is fighting for a woman's right to dress in the way she wants without being deemed a slut, in India the fight is far more basic. The 13-year-old raped and murdered in Gonda wasn't wearing a low-plunging dress or asking for attention. "This isn't about sweet little girls asking for permission, " bristles Sabarwal, who has been the target of intense media scrutiny in the last week. "It's about tackling the bigger issue of violence against women in public spaces, and it has nothing to do with what I wear. "
Kajal Gulati, a senior research analyst at the International Food Policy Research Institute who spent three months in Gorakhpur as part of her job, felt no safer just because she wore a salwar kameez. "I wore a suit then, but I didn't feel any safer, " she says. "Gorakhpur (a town in UP) is a place where they ogle at a woman more than a foreigner. "
Columnist Shobhaa De has called Sabarwal and Singh "kids hungry for media attention" on national television. While many agree with De, there are hundreds who don't. Aisha Zakira, who runs the Mumbai chapter of the international collective Hollaback that fights street harassment, is extremely supportive of Sabarwal and Singh.
"We live in a culture that perpetuates harassment. At least this has started a discussion that harassment of women is not acceptable, " says Zakira, adding that the message may have been diluted by the use of the world slut. "It could alienate the majority of people who don't speak English. It's good that they have now made it more relevant. "
Zakira is referring to the name that the women in Delhi will march under - Slut-Walk Delhi Artharth Besharmi Morcha. "We wanted to make the protest all inclusive and not alienate people who might not have understood what slut means, " says Singh.
"Embarrass the man who stares at you. Silence doesn't mean a No, as much as it doesn't mean yes. If I don't stop him, tomorrow he'll touch a girl and then after that he'll be emboldened enough to molest one. The mentality that always blames the victim has to change. It's never the girl's fault. "
Zakira feels that re-education of men is just as important. "I do think that it's important because they grow up thinking it's alright to harass or stare. And it's not, " she says. Los Angeles SlutWalk steering committee member Hugo Schwyzer says that SlutWalk is for men, too. He writes on his blog, "I want my daughter to grow up in a world in which all men are safe, responsible, reliable. We don't have that world yet, of course. But the reason has nothing to do with biology: it has to do with our crushingly low expectations of men's capacity to reconcile lust and humanity. In order for our daughters and little sisters and nieces to be safer, we must demand better of ourselves as men. And one way to start is to challenge the very roots of our thinking about sex, desire, and respect. That challenge is part of what SlutWalk is all about. "
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