On Signs And Signifiers
I’ve been pretty busy moving and settling in a new city these past three weeks, I couldn’t keep up with people, let alone the internet — thus thankfully missing debates around whether Mumbai should have slutwalks or not. One of the organisers asked me whether I’d be willing to help organise as we’ve worked on a few things together before. She was quite taken aback when I declined her offer (given that Slutwalk Mumbai ends up taking place) as we usually agree on most things when it comes to activism and organising. She asked, “But don’t you love your freedom? How can you pass up an opportunity such as this to see and know how far we can push boundaries?” and then I didn’t have any answers for her as I was, and am still caught up in thinking how for her, and a lot of people Slutwalk™ has come to symbolise the sum of all feminist rioting considering Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Mumbai (from time to time) have had walks and pickets by feminists and people involved in gender justice, for causes ranging from more college seats for women to raising awareness about sex-selective abortions — each issue that emerges from our specific caste, gender, class conflicts in each specific city long before Slutwalk™ became an enterprise. Since this exchange, the rhetoric behind supporting slutwalks has become intertwined with “respecting and loving oneself” — where love¹ (of the self, of the ‘community’) is continuously intertwined to the extent that any opposition to slutwalk today is to “hate” freedom — and peculiarly, this ‘freedom’ that SW represents has to move away from anything “recognisably” Indian — whatever that means to people individually and collectively.
In other parts of the country — especially Delhi — newspapers and news channels are all fixed on Anna Hazare’s impending fast tomorrow, that has been a part of national rhetoric and vocabulary since late April. On the whole, Hazare demands for a new anti-corruption bill, asks people to fully and directly engage with the government and hold them accountable. When it comes to the news coverage of his speeches and his entire fast, the comparisons drawn to Gandhi are more than co-incidental – tomorrow being Independence Day for India, the analogy becomes even thicker, Hazare is viewed as the “one man army” who is going to drive away corruption, going by Gandhi’s views of freedom. While I don’t necessarily agree that this protest is “peaceful” at all, that by specifically re-membering India’s history of independence as one without critically admitting to ourselves and others that it meant freedom for only ‘some’ people, I do find such a ‘nation-wide’ movement fascinating — as from time to time we see women also supporting Hazare’s fast², it’s been a while since women have been featured under the “national gaze” as more than just agency-less subjects. However, coming to the actual protest due on 15th August at Delhi, it seems women may not have a harassment-free space to march and protest. Can’t say I’m particularly shocked if tomorrow there are mostly men broadcasted over the news — as Hazare (like Gandhi) still see women’s roles under traditional patriarchy of wifedom and motherdom. For instance, the Alcohol Prohibition Act reads like one that empowers women, to talk about their abusive alcoholic spouses – it supposes that only men can be alcoholics, that one has to be an alcoholic to abuse people; there are many loopholes to this and quite a few of his other arguments too, one of the most troubling being — does an anti-corruption movement erase/will attempt to smooth over India’s history and geography of communal violence and casteism?
Last week, a few reporters were asking questions to the ‘working-class’ women in my University building about this Hazare movement. One reporter translated to hindi asking, “Do you believe you’ll finally be free of corruption?”, “Do you support Hazare, do you think he is doing some good for women?” and I am still parsing and thinking over what M* told the journalists. As amused as she was, she looked serious enough for the camera and said, “I don’t know about free. I don’t know about Hazare. I know I have to work to support myself and my family whether tomorrow there is “free”, or a hundred Hazares or not”. For me, most of these protests, marches and walks have come to symbolise a great disparity between what the protest starts off as, and what it becomes, who it takes along the way and who is ultimately allowed to participate. It doesn’t particularly matter that M* would be a good candidate for SlutWalk (as she is a widow who is battling sexually abusive parents in-law) or for the Hazare fast tomorrow (as she is read and treated as ‘working class’, ‘rural poor’ etc.), it doesn’t matter that her body, the space she occupies in the university, in her family, other spaces a few weeks of conversation has not shown me, another few spaces I will never gain access to³(whether she or I ever want to broach *that* space is a different question altogether) — all of these spaces, [in her words] could do with some help to not always get in her way. What matters is, she survives in the best way she can, that I can do whatever little in my control to be of any form of assistance, should she demand it.
While there is no doubt that ‘freedom’ means different things to different people, that there is never a single history, geography or solution to a problem, that there are people who genuinely view SlutWalks, the Hazare protest as achieving some amount of ‘freedom’, I would just like to ask, at what cost? Who is left bound for you to be free?
1. People citing love as a motivation to do anything that isn’t sanctioned by the state-community-family is definitely noteworthy, however this doesn’t change the power dynamics behind SlutWalk being a movement based on people’s desirability.
2. Not that presence necessarily mandates representation and agency, have to admit such footage sometimes even makes me hopeful.
3. Mutual respect for each other doesn’t mean she or I still aren’t bound with society’s hierarchies — especially when it’s more than just a private discussion.