Indian Women Take SlutWalk to New Delhi's Streets

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Mustafa Quraishi / AP

A woman holds a placard at New Delhi's SlutWalk on July 31, 2011

On a bright Sunday morning, young women walked the streets of New Delhi without the fear of being ogled or groped. For yesterday's female participants in SlutWalk Delhi, one of a series of marches around the world protesting sexual violence against women, the atmosphere of safety was an exception to daily life in the Indian capital. "People stare at you, they make you feel uncomfortable, and in places where it's very crowded, people take advantage of the crowd and try to molest you," says Trishla Singh, a college student and a coordinator at the event. "On public transportation, going out on the streets, anything that has to do with going out of the house is problematic."

The SlutWalk movement, which started in Toronto in April to protest police indifference to victims of rape, spurred similar marches in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. In these earlier versions of the event, protesters' clothes were skimpy, the lipstick flaming red and the large crowds exhibitionist in an effort to make their point. In conservative India, the message was the same, but the march through the streets of the capital took a slightly less risqué form. "It had to be a little bit toned down because we're talking about a different sociocultural context," says Singh. "If you talk about societal time frame, we are not in the same time as Toronto or the U.S."

To keep the focus on the message of protesting sexual violence, the name of the march was tweaked in Hindi to "Shameless Front." Armed with placards drawn in marker with slogans like "Stop Staring: This Is Not an Invitation to Rape Me" and "I Have Nothing to Be Ashamed of," the hundreds of protesters hoped to draw attention to the growing problem of harassment and violence that women in India are facing. The number of rape cases reported has grown 678% since the country began keeping statistics 30 years ago; rape is now considered the fastest-growing crime in the country. "There was the feeling that something really needs to be done because we all know that Delhi is highly unsafe for women," says Umang Sabarwal, a college student in New Delhi and chief organizer of the event.

A series of high-profile incidents in the capital in the past year has increased the urgency of the call to action. When a 30-year-old woman was raped going home late at night from her job at an Indian outsourcing company, the public outrage that ensued compelled the police to take action. The employee was gang-raped after being dropped off several hundred yards from her home by a hired-car service. To try to protect women going to and from work late at night in shared cabs, the New Delhi police force required companies to drop female employees at their doorsteps and to install GPS units to ensure that the rule was followed.

Incidents of sexual harassment are, in fact, so frequent on the New Delhi metro that certain cars are restricted to female passengers. Earlier this month, when New Delhi's police commissioner advised women not to travel late at night by themselves, he was criticized by women's groups and the media for not taking women's safety seriously enough. "You hear stories, and there are things that happen that are so normal because they happen to everybody," says Sabarwal. "It's very important for women to assert themselves and reclaim what is rightfully theirs."

The heightened sense that women are at risk is in part due to the increasing friction between old cultural norms and new economic realities, says Sunita Kaistha, head of the Women Work & Health Initiative, a nonprofit based in New Delhi. The economic boom that has encompassed the country has brought more women out of their traditional roles in the home and into the workforce, particularly in urban areas. In New Delhi, Kaistha sees the rise in sexual violence as linked to the rise of women in the workforce. "The culture is very patriarchal, and it's still very difficult for people to accept girls working, traveling, going out at night," she says.

The increasing number of women in the workplace has also put a spotlight on behavior in the office. A survey conducted last year by the Centre for Transforming India, a nonprofit organization in New Delhi, found that a startling 88% of female workers in the country's growing IT and outsourcing industry experienced sexual harassment on the job.

The alarming rise in violence may not mean that there are necessarily more incidents of harassment and rape but that they are finally being reported, says Urvashi Butalia, the founder of the first feminist publishing company in India. "Violence against women has always been prevalent, but it never makes it to the papers," she says. "The changing reality is women are out more, accessing the public space more, so on all fronts it's a much more public phenomenon than it was earlier."

For the participants at the New Delhi SlutWalk, taking what was once an individual struggle for Indian women to the streets was an important first step. "People are talking about it. That's a start," says Singh. "People never used to mention rape or molestation as a problem. It used to be a crime, just like stealing someone's car."