“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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