Slutwalk: To march or not to march

| May 18, 2011
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"When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak." 

- Audre Lorde

Since April, when thousands marched in a Slutwalk in Toronto in response to a police officer telling students that the best way to avoid getting raped was to avoid dressing like a "slut," Slutwalks have spread across cities in Canada and the U.S. to the U.K. and Australia. Accompanying this global surge has been a myriad of controversies about the term "slut" as well as questions about who was being left out from this new movement.

I share many of these concerns.

Slutwalk -- in its slick branding -- runs the risk of facilitating the dominant discourse of "liberated" women as only those women wearing mini-skirts and high heels in/on their way to professional jobs. In reality, capitalism mediates the feminist façade of choice by creating an entire industry that commodifies women's sexuality and links a woman's self-esteem and self-worth to fashion and beauty. Slutwalk itself consistently refuses any connection to feminism and fixates solely around liberal questions of individual choice -- the palatable "I can wear what I want" feminism that is intentionally devoid of an analysis of power dynamics.

Historically, this has also come at a great cost to low-income women and women of colour who bear the brunt of institutionalized sexism -- from lack of access to childcare and denial of reproductive justice to stratification in precarious low-wage work and disproportionate criminalization. In the post 9/11 climate, the focus on a particular version of sex(y)-positive feminism runs the risk of further marginalizing Muslim women's movements who are hugely impacted by the racist "reasonable accommodation" debate and state policies against the niqab. This marginalization has, at least in part, been legitimized through an imperialist feminist discourse that imposes certain ideas of gender liberation and perpetuates the myth that certain cultural/religious identities are inherently antithetical to women's rights.

According to Nassim Elbardouh, notable anti-violence worker with women in the Downtown Eastside, "People need to realize that being 'scantily clad' is not the only patriarchal excuse that victimizes women. Sexual assaults against Muslim women, for example, are often minimized in our society because Muslim women are perceived as repressed, and therefore in need of sexual emancipation. I would much rather have attended a 'Do Not Rape' Walk."

On the use of the term "slut" itself, while I appreciate that others feel differently and there is an argument to be made about transgressing the social boundaries defined by the term "slut," I personally don't feel the whole "reclaim slut" thing. I find that the term disproportionately impacts women of colour and poor women to reinforce their status as inherently dirty and second-class, and hence more rape-able. The history of genocide against indigenous women, the enslavement of black women, and the forced sterilization of poor women goes beyond their attire. It is a means of gender control that is embedded within the intersecting processes of racism and colonialism. As long-term activists with Incite Women of Color have pointed out, the experience of women of colour with violence and victim-blaming is not only quantitatively different (i.e. increased) but is also qualitatively different.

Racist and sexist terminology like "squaw" continues to particularly demean indigenous women living in poverty. The systemic ideology that upholds the colonial disposability of indigenous women's bodies and lives has normalized the tragedy of thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women across this country. As a Manitoba judge stated during the inquiry into the death of 19-year-old Helen Betty Osborne "the men who abducted Osborne believed that young aboriginal women were objects with no human value beyond sexual gratification."

One of the organizers of the Vancouver Slutwalk admitted in a Tyee interview that many marginalized women did not feel comfortable marching: "We will speak to the fact that we need to recognize that there are groups that are more affected, who will not be as strongly represented at this march as they should be."

Having said all that, it might be surprising, then, to know that I did march in Slutwalk on May 15.

I attended for the simple reason that I am committed to ending victim blaming. The Slutwalks in Toronto and Vancouver came out of the specific contexts of comments by police officers in Toronto and Saanich that were reinforcing to young women about how to avoid getting raped. In Manitoba, Judge Robert Dewar commented that a young aboriginal rape survivor acted "inviting."

Even though I did not march under the banner of "sluthood," I marched to mark the unceded territory of women's bodies. I marched because language is a weapon yielded against the powerless. I marched because rapists causes rape and sexual assault can never be justified. I marched to end the policing of women by other women. I marched because that day, though understandable, I happened to be tired of the Left ruthlessly eating itself alive. I marched in defiance of right-wing pundits like Margaret Wente to make visible the staggering reality of rape and violence against all women in so-called civilized countries like Canada.

By the time Slutwalk hit Vancouver on May 15, the debates had already been raging for weeks. I expected to see only a handful of women of colour, mothers and children, older women. I was surprised at the actual diversity on the streets, not captured by photographers seeking sensationalist images of bras and fish nets. There was no attempt to recruit everyone into one uniform vision of femininity, nor was there an overarching romanticizing of "sluttiness"; sexual autonomy was being self-determined by each participant -- as one placard read "Whether scantily dressed or fully dressed, clothing does not equal consent." Most heartening was the significant number of teenagers, who are perhaps most pressured against affirming consent and are most impacted by self-shame and victim-blaming, and supporting their voices on the street was a critical gesture of solidarity.

While Slutwalk may like to present itself as a movement, I would argue that it isn't. Rather, it is simply one part of a broader movement to end violence against women. Similarly, my reflection is just that -- one person's rant in a wider spectrum of opinion. It does not (pejoratively) imply that I am a "sister who fell for Slutwalk," nor does it imply my uncritical endorsement. As Berthold Brecht said: "In the contradiction lies the hope." Whether or not Slutwalk is around, there are hundreds of thousands of us who continue to live and organize every day to eliminate heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism.

Harsha Walia is a South Asian organizer and write based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She has organized for over a decade in a range of anti-racist, anti-colonial, and feminist movements and is currently active in No One Is Illegal and works with women in the Downtown Eastside. She can be found on Twitter.

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I think the walk itself lacks effectiveness in name and aim. If housing and livelihood are taken seriously, they should be highlighted. Otherwise, you're limiting the discussion to fashion. The centralized issue requires a narrow mind. In brief, I ask at risk of sounding banal, what about getting ripped off by corporations and mid sized business? Tie that into the thinking and you may have a direction to walk in.

The second half of your article dives into an attempt to give women immunity.  Why not consider the violence of women against their children? It'd buck the trend but at that point you would have to also consider that some women knowingly put their children in harm's way, and they do so to keep "the party going," sometimes even to keep the man, or one of his friend's, happy. Yes---this could be out of fear. But why keep the party going at all; why keep the man happy at all. You can ask the kids about that. Someone ought to: kids are often as afraid of what their mother will do to them  when they tell. . . . And you can bet they are more afraid of going home to a partyhouse than going to the mall.

Excellent opinion piece! It well reflects my conflicted feelings about it, but much more eloquently than I could have thought of :)

Crtitique like this inhances the capacity of these events to confront some unintentional yet pervasive alliances with what these events work against, sexual violence.  I'm glad people are conflicted about this and discussing it without the polarity of those anti-femminist women like (margaret wente at the globe) or those who totally love the slutwalk unquestioningly. 

 There is a phrase I've been hearing around everywhere these days regarding organizing and activism; 'We Need it All'.  We need it all so that there will be diverse tactics and methods of organizing and we can have an intersubjective experience and not a totalizing discourse whereby 'activists' are put into one box, solidarity is not always in agreement but rather respect and allyship, so it is with respect that Walia has found a space to criticize, participate, and not entirely agree with Slutwalk.

Yes, excellent! I'd like to add that Slutwalk has inspired more activism. Please see the link  here and help end sexism: 2 hours ago

Thank you for this piece Harsha. I appreciated your willingness to participate in SlutWalk even with some difference of opinion and criticisms. I also appreciate your awareness and discussion of intersecting race, class and poverty issues that are often overlooked. SlutWalk Toronto was fortunate to have community involvement and several speakers who spoke specifically to the different experiences of sexual assault, victim-blaming and slut-shaming that indigenous women, women of colour, people living in poverty, women with different abilities and sex workers can face. We have not addressed all of these intersections and all communities which is something we are continuously working on.

I would like to challenge you on one main assertion however. When you said "Slutwalk itself consistently refuses any connection to feminism and fixates solely around liberal questions of individual choice -- the palatable "I can wear what I want" feminism that is intentionally devoid of an analysis of power dynamics," I challenge that this is quite inaccurate. From the very beginning SlutWalk organizers have discussed feminism and many have been vocal about their feminist stands and connections (for example, some is right in our bios on our website and many conversations about feminism occurred on our FB page). Although we do often speak about respecting individual choice and the strength of self-selected identity, this is coming from an awareness of the experiences of sexual assault victims and survivors in that, unfortunatley, any type of dress and aesthetic has been assaulted and is continuously at risk. Our choice around language, although quite contentious as you noted, comes from a history of marginalized communities shifting language and reclaiming it, such as the queer community. Many of our discussions, awareness and decisions were made with active analyses of power dynamics and this analysis continues as we engage with more voices and more communities. We may not have involved an analysis of all power dynamics - something we are aware of and we are always learning about (aren't we all?) - but power dynamics were inherently part of the discussion when SlutWalk hit the streets.

Thank you again for your piece - your reflection, your critical awareness, your willingness to engage, for keeping the conversations going, and for your solidarity with so many.

- A SlutWalk Toronto organizer

I think it is also important to think about the links between the Slutwalk and Sex Worker rights. I think there is a big connection here.. the word "Slut" is often a derogotory word to describe a woman as being sexually promiscuous or to be a prostitute.. and so to reclaim the word "Slut" and have thousands of women reclaiming it, and men too!.. means the word has less power as a weapon against those who are *some* of the most vulnerable to violence in the street.. including Street workers, prosititutes, transsexual's, gay men etc.. and there is I think a large pecentage or prostitutes who are women of color and TS women of color because of financial status of minority groups.. so I think the Slutwalk could (if it doesnt already) represent and fight againt the hatred and violence against the most stigmatised and often vulnerable minorities.

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