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Brutalized Bodies and Sexy Dressing on the


Indian Street

Article in Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society · September 2014


DOI: 10.1086/676890

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y

Brutalized Bodies and Sexy Dressing on the Indian Street

Ratna Kapur

T wo recent protests in postcolonial India have explored the potential


of gendered bodies in the protest sphere to disturb gender categories
and dominant sexual norms. One was the response to the brutal gang
rape and murder of a twenty-three-year-old student on a moving bus in
Delhi in December 2012. The specter of her brutalized body formed the
backdrop against which thousands of young people poured onto the streets
of major metropolises demanding justice. It marked a rare instance in the
contemporary moment when violence against women was foregrounded
as a political issue in a liberal democracy. The SlutWalks were an earlier
movement that took place sporadically in towns and cities across India
in 2011. The movement was triggered by the remark of a police officer
at a Toronto law school event on campus safety that in order for women
to avoid being victimized, they “should avoid dressing like sluts” ðKapur
2012, 2Þ. Within a short period of time, students demonstrated their
outrage that their right to wear what they wanted should be the basis of
sexual profiling. They protested on the streets in a march named the Slut-
Walk, wearing what they wanted. SlutWalk went viral on the Internet and
social networking sites, and it went global on the streets of major met-
ropolitan cities, including in India ðKapur 2012, 1Þ. In these demonstra-
tions, sexy dressing rendered the body itself the site of protest.
Both protests demonstrated the sheer exhaustion and frustration that
women in Delhi and elsewhere have felt in response to being ogled, pawed,
and groped from the moment they step into the public space. Whether
she is buying vegetables, having a coffee, or simply getting on a bus, a wom-
an’s expression of autonomy is sexualized and her sexualization becomes
an invitation. Both protests foregrounded women’s desire to be able to

[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2014, vol. 40, no. 1]
© 2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2014/4001-0002$10.00
10 y Symposium: Gendered Bodies in the Protest Sphere

move freely in public without experiencing persistent threats to their rights


to sexual autonomy and bodily integrity.
The legibility of the female body in postcolonial India is framed by
the ideals of Indian womanhood formulated in the context of the late-
nineteenth-century colonial experience and early nationalist movement that
relied on notions of chastity, purity, self-sacrifice, honor, and heterosexu-
ality ðCousins 1941; Parmeswaran ½1975 2010Þ. This construction operates
through contrast with the body that is defiled, stigmatized, marginalized,
or incarcerated ðButler 1993, 1Þ. The borders of Indian womanhood are
regulated and patrolled quite literally by the police as well as by the nor-
malization of an aggressive, virile masculinity that insists that gender must
be expressed in a very specific way ðSinha 1995; Misri 2011Þ. The ways
in which women participate in public space, their language, expressions of
sexuality, and attire, are monitored and surveyed through dominant sexual
norms as well as fear of backlash ðAnagol-McGinn 1994; Bagilhole 1997Þ.
This space and the norms operating within it are partly influenced by Vic-
torian sexual morality combined with a deeply conservative nationalist stance
on sexuality that has influenced the understandings of gender and sexual-
ity in law, celluloid and other media, and the family in postcolonial India.
In the course of both protests, women amassed on the streets to stake
a claim to the public, countering the very conception of politics as oper-
ating exclusively along the axis of the public/private distinction and vo-
calizing their opposition to the state’s politics of gender and sexuality.
The female body became a political body and a powerful site of resistance
ðFoucault 1979; Butler 1990Þ. But it was also subjected to harassment,
derision, and violence from the state’s law-and-order apparatus and con-
fronted by intractable normative injunctions. The Delhi rape protests were
violently opposed by the police, who hoped to disperse the crowds and
represent the protesters as mere hooligans. The bodily protests of the Slut-
Walks, while not subjected to police violence, were subjected to a barrage
of feminist critiques that ranged from categorizing the global SlutWalks
as nothing more than a form of “narcissistic self-indulgence” ðWente 2011Þ
to more local arguments that such marches would not change the mate-
rial condition of women’s lives or lessen sexual violence in India.
Cultural arguments also accompanied both protests. SlutWalks were
cast by some as nothing more than a Western import that had no rele-
vance to the brutalized and victimized body sprawled across the Indian
street ðDhillon 2011Þ. And in the context of the Delhi rape protests, some
of the Western press implicitly claimed a position of cultural superiority
by representing Indian men as more prone to rape ðChamberlain 2013Þ;
representing Indian society as more violent, aggressive, and hence primi-
S I G N S Autumn 2014 y 11

tive ðJack 2013Þ; and representing Indian women as in need of a cultural


makeover ðPurves 2012Þ. In turn, the right-wing Hindu parties in India
blamed the entire problem of sexual violence on evil Western influences
and called for the restoration of women to the place of respect that they
once enjoyed in some long-lost ancient Hindu past.

Same body, different outcomes


Despite the commonality of their message, the protests produced con-
tradictory outcomes. In the Delhi rape protests, the gendered body was
not itself the site of the protest. The battered body of the young Delhi
woman triggered the demand for justice from a state that was envisaged
as a sovereign entity capable of enacting top-down change. The state was
anthropomorphized as a “someone” who was “listening.” This process
was exemplified by the public appearance of Sonia Gandhi, president of
the ruling Congress Party, and her reassurances to the protesters that some-
thing would be done. She emerged as empathetic to the plight of women
and their suffering. This largely maternal, authoritative, and hierarchal per-
formance ultimately translated into legislation that reiterated gender cate-
gories. Through the enactment of a host of new criminal-law provisions
and security measures, accompanied by more stringent sentences for rape,
including the death penalty in some instances, the no-nonsense, muscular
state demonstrated that it had zero tolerance for violence against women.1
The resurrected brutalized body of the Delhi rape victim served to rein-
scribe the existing categories of male and female in law, as “stable, hierar-
chical, oppositional, and heterosexual” ðCossman 2002, 282Þ. The vulner-
able and frightened female body, repackaged in a protective bubble wrap
and regulated by a new sexual security regime, ultimately displaced the
body in protest. At the same time, the state continued to withhold recog-
nition for victims of marital rape, sex workers, and homosexuals and failed
to attend to the Hindu Right’s communalization of sexual violence that
casts Muslim men as rapists and Hindu women as victims. In the end, the
protests seemed to strengthen the very political powers they were purport-
ing to transform or overthrow.
In contrast, the politics of the SlutWalks were expressed more ex-
plicitly in corporeal terms, as the protestors used their bodies to convey
the political message. The SlutWalkers used sexy dressing to push back
against the dominant discourse of sex as something that is bad and de-

1
Criminal Law ðAmendmentÞ Act, no. 13 of 2013, April 2.
12 y Symposium: Gendered Bodies in the Protest Sphere

praved, which was one of the specific objectives of the marchers ðBorah
and Nandi 2012Þ. The marches signaled a deep discomfort with the no-
tion that dress could serve as a justification for rape. The SlutWalkers de-
fied the normative boundaries of gender by embodying sexual speech.
While the performance of gender in the Indian SlutWalks was not radi-
cally transgressive insofar as the dress of the protesters was more muted
and less flamboyant than the sexy dressing of SlutWalk marchers outside
of South Asia, it was nevertheless controversial and served as evidence that
an alternative, more disruptive body was available within postcolonial India.
In the process the performance troubled representations of the gendered
third-world other as more victimized, vulnerable, and in need of protection
than her Western counterpart ðMohanty 1991, 70; Kapur 2005, 91–100Þ.
Yet this body could not operate fully outside the prevailing discourses
in which sexuality and violence are tightly interwoven with notions of
shame, honor, and chastity ðSarkar 2001Þ. The renaming of the protest
as besharmi morcha ðshameless protestÞ exemplifies the difficulty of march-
ing under the “slut” banner while simultaneously drawing attention to
the discourses of shame and honor within which the sexualized body in
India continues to be incarcerated.

Conclusion
In both protests, sexed and gendered bodies momentarily reconfigured
the public and the space of politics. Not unlike the Arab Spring, the pro-
tests opened up a disruptive “time and space outside and against the tem-
porality and established architecture” of official authority ðButler 2011Þ.
These seemingly ephemeral moments have left traces of material and dis-
cursive change. With varying degrees of success, the gendered body pulled
away from the tightly knit constellation of prevalent norms that confer
recognition. At the same time, in both instances gender and sex also re-
emerged in official discourse as part of a regulatory practice, which pro-
duces and effaces the bodies it governs ðButler 1993, xiÞ. While gender is
something that can be improvised, it is always operating within a system
of politically, culturally, and socially established norms and discursive con-
straints ðButler 2004, 2Þ. It is within this arrangement that the rights of
women are articulated and the demand for recognition in law is taken up
and formulated.
The outcomes compel several challenging questions that require deeper
reflection: Can gendered bodies in the protest sphere ever be an exercise
in moving toward freedom? In other words, can gender be a force for pro-
gressive change given that it is shaped by and embedded in histories and
S I G N S Autumn 2014 y 13

political contexts that ensure it never moves in only one direction, toward
only one political goal or one progressive end? If, as Butler argues, “I am
someone who cannot be without doing, then the conditions of my do-
ing are, in part the conditions of my existence” ðButler 2004, 3Þ. We might
therefore explore what possibilities of being are opened up through the
refusal to protest in this always already colonized and regulated space
ðAhmed 2010Þ.
Jindal Law School

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y

New Feminism as Personal Revolutions:


Microrebellious Bodies

Zakia Salime

I n March 2013, the nineteen-year-old Tunisian woman Amina Sboui, af-


filiated with the controversial feminist group Femen, posted two topless
pictures of herself on the Internet. Sboui, who was also known as Amina
Tyler, marked her chest with the expression “Fuck your morals” and, written
in Arabic, “My body belongs to me, and it is not anybody’s honor.”1
Founded in 2008 by a group of Ukrainian feminists, Femen organized top-
less protests “against various forms of gender and sexual oppression of
women.”2 In North Africa, the controversy over Sboui’s semantics of the
body inspired a group of women to form Femen Morocco on March 23,

1
The picture can be accessed through Femen’s website at http://femen.org/en/news/id
/294.
2
See Femen’s statement at http://femen.org/about.

[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2014, vol. 40, no. 1]
© 2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2014/4001-0003$10.00

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