Time to drop the ‘S’ word
By Maria Amir
“Because women’s work is never done and is underpaid or unpaid or boring or repetitious and we’re the first to get fired and what we look like is more important than what we do and if we get raped it’s our fault and if we get beaten we must have provoked it and if we raise our voices we’re nagging bitches and if we enjoy sex we’re nymphos and if we don’t we’re frigid and if we love women it’s because we can’t get a ‘real’ man and if we ask our doctor too many questions we’re neurotic and/or pushy and if we expect childcare we’re selfish and if we stand up for our rights we’re aggressive and ‘unfeminine’ and if we don’t we’re typical weak females and if we want to get married we’re out to trap a man and if we don’t we’re unnatural and because we still can’t get an adequate safe contraceptive but men can walk on the moon and if we can’t cope or don’t want a pregnancy we’re made to feel guilty about abortion and…for lots of other reasons we are part of the women’s liberation movement.” –A general appeal, quoted in The Torch, September 14 1987
It really shouldn’t be surprising but it is.
Millions of women all around the world marching to reclaim a single word. A word, that by definition, was designed to insult them. Over the past decade, fewer women have banded together to protest against sexual abuse, for fair wages, against honour crimes, the closure of girls schools in several countries, terrorism and for a woman’s right to abortion, but somehow, SlutWalking got everyone’s attention.
One might suppose it has a lot to do with packaging – the word ‘slut’ has a certain cache with advertisers and journalists alike. It rubs some the wrong way and others take it to mean an expression of independence – either way, it sells. Yet, this does little to address all ethical objections associated with the labeling of women with regards to their sexuality. There is a host of problems associated with trying to reclaim abusive terminologies and a different set of concerns follow any attempt to neutralize terms such as ‘slut’ or ‘nigger’. An egalitarian society would not allow for such concepts to exist and thereby obliterate the terms but obviously, we are far from that yet.
SlutWalks began on April 3, 2011 in Toronto, when a police Constable Michael Sanguinetti suggested that if women didn’t want to be victimised and raped then “they should avoid dressing like sluts”. What followed was an unanticipated banding together of women from all over the world, strutting the streets of Chicago, Glasgow, London, Sao Paulo, Sydney, and most recently, Delhi in droves. Scores of women were observed protesting clad in the most provocative clothing they could manage, walking the streets as living, breathing emblems of one of the earliest feminist slogans: “However we dress, wherever we go…Yes means ‘yes’ and No means ‘No’, means ‘no’, means ‘no’”. The reaction to these provocateurs has naturally been varied and widespread, but there are few who can deny the effectiveness of their march, at least in the symbolic sense. If a protest, at its best, is designed to draw attention to a problem then SlutWalking has certainly done just that. What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not this particular vein of rallying proves effective in theory and whether it will hold up to the ever-changing denominations of modern feminism.
At first glance this doesn’t appear to be the case. After all, why would women want to reclaim a word so deeply rooted in misogyny and that has been devised under a self-perpetuating patriarchal gaze? Then again, there are several strands of feminism that seek to redefine the roles of women from within communal frameworks – that while, ostensibly patriarchal – allow for barriers to be broken. This would include feminists in Saudi Arabia protesting by insisting on driving vehicles even though it goes against the law, and female athletes in Pakistan, facing immense social pressures in venturing out on the fields in trousers and T-shirts. Regardless of whether or not it confines to anarchist views, these women are pioneers in their own right and they are breaking patriarchal definitions from within. They could just as easily refuse to have any part in combating the misogyny that surrounds them by insisting upon a universal, all-encompassing, single standard for women to be in place before they make their moves but that would prove both impractical as well as naïve.
If one were to extend the same narrative to SlutWalking, it would entail opening up prevailing stereotypes about female sexuality to vigorous criticism and debate. Today, the word ‘slut’ tends to describe “A person, especially a woman, considered sexually promiscuous”, but the term is rooted in the Victorian definitions of a harlot, essentially used to denigrate slatterns and unclean women (even further). But as tends to be the case, the term came to be linked to all the negative adjectives men began using to distinguish between the women they married and the ones they preferred for a night’s romp. Henry Fielding puts this most offensively…forgive me, effectively, in Tom Jones: “However, what she withheld from the infant, she bestowed with the utmost profuseness on the poor unknown mother, whom she called an impudent slut, a wanton hussy, an audacious harlot, a wicked jade, a vile strumpet, with every other appellation with which the tongue of virtue never fails to lash those who bring a disgrace on the sex.”
Not much has changed as the ‘S-word’ continues to colour the implicit ‘loose character’ of women all around the world. From burlesque fishnets in Copenhagen to sleeveless kurtas in Pakistan, fashion tends to operate as a parallel force now synonymous with feminism. The term has taken root in various forms and in hundreds of global dialects. Naturally the words vary too – in all likelihood, due to overuse – slut and whore invariably morph into ‘randi’ and ‘gashti’ in Punjabi and nearly every language has its own accompanying adjectives. There are countless examples of cases in Southern Punjab where honour killings are not even investigated if the accused states that the woman was having an affair. For instance, on July 13, a man killed three of his daughters in Rahim Yar Khan simply because the girls chose to meet their fiancés with their heads uncovered. The police case officer explicitly stated that he could not ‘get involved’, given that the guardian of the girls had stated the reason for the murder was that the girls were ‘fahsh’, a desi anagram for vulgarity. Interestingly enough, the antonym for slut tends to be stud in most psychosexual and social contexts. The connotations of this particular twist imply that men generally adopt the term ‘stud’ in self-congratulation, and employ the word ‘slut’ to denigrate women who display exactly the same behavior.
Either way the narrative, the parameters, the language and its application generally come from men. In different countries the words mean different things and nearly every time the appellations rise in direct proportion to a man’s libido. The more a man is turned on by a woman’s unapologetic flaunting of her sexuality or looks, the more likely she is to be termed a slut or some equivalent thereof. Rebecca West made a solid point when she said: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute.”
How one ultimately regards SlutWalking will depend mostly on how highly one values definition and symbolism over practice and experience. This grading curve tends to affect much of feminist debate and it certainly holds sway when it comes to keeping up appearances – no pun intended. The fact that some men seem to be in control of, first labeling a woman a slut, and then insinuating that this label excuses or even invites rape is abhorrent and inexcusable. SlutWalking – while a rather knee-jerk response to rally against the insinuation – is proving to be a visually powerful tool in denouncing its implications.
The closest corollary for the issue in Pakistan, is the most recent SlutWalks held in Delhi. The fact that the issue was even taken up in India is intriguing since taking a stand alone, is reflective of how various strands of feminists in India are branching out of conventional ‘honour issue’ debates and into feminist discourse analysis. “I couldn’t dream of the same thing happening in Pakistan. Firstly, we just (what? Have?) different issues. This is a Muslim country and by implication that places limitations on what a woman can and cannot wear and how she can and cannot act. Pakistani feminism, at least mainstream feminism cannot be individualistic,” says Aurat Foundation counselor Nighat Qadir. “Feminism here needs to be about the collective. All we can hope for is justice, education and an over all tolerance for women’s rights. We aren’t anywhere near a discourse about personal choices and radical feminist expression,” she added. A practical woman would do well to distinguish between her environment and her ideals.
What the SlutWalk movement raises is the potential dialogue on the journey from ‘should’ to ‘is’. Any potential revolution finds its grounds in a firm ideology. Theory must come before practice and the assertion that women ‘should’ be allowed to dress as they choose without fear of being raped is sound and solid in theory. But practice is a different story. Aurat Foundation representative Mehmoona Sabir said that Indian feminism was branching out beyond Pakistani women’s rights, primarily because of the diversity of their population. “Indian women come from dozens of different denominations, cultures and faith and a multicultural society is by nature forced to adopt and inculcate democratic norms and ideals. Indian women can SlutWalk to protest rape but if Pakistani women did, they not only would be raped but in all likelihood they’d be killed,” she said, adding “this isn’t to deliberate on whether or not SlutWalks are a legitimate feminist movement but regardless the right to protest is not equal everywhere. Certainly not in Pakistan.”
Often times the word “slut” is inherently indivisible from the Madonna/whore binary opposition that has categorized women into two large castes from as far back as we have been able to trace human existence. On the other hand, the solution to escaping such labels certainly doesn’t lie in lionizing promiscuity. Also, the way a person chooses to dress is a relatively poor indicator of their sexual appetite, if at all. What are the indicators of such supposed ‘sluttishness’? Is it too much make-up or dressing like fashion models on television or does it comprise of come-hither glances and brazen speech? In the case of the former, who does one implicate – the media and fashion industry? Are these conglomerates responsible for the ever-increasing counts of rape? And are women who wear burka’s but still have a healthy sexual appetite exempt from the flimsy labels? Do we disregard female athletes who choose to dress modestly but behave promiscuously from this banner or is it reserved exclusively for women who choose to doll up? Where does one even draw the line to classify women into this tidy little label?
Where SlutWalks are concerned, I find myself in rare and unprecedented agreement with British Tory MP Louise Bagshawe, “promiscuity is not equality.” It is hard to accept the notion that abandoning corsets and burkas somehow implies taking up arms in latex. The same premise also links in well with Naomi Wolf’s definition of female beauty in ‘The Beauty Myth’. Wolf wrote that women should have “the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished by an ideology that is using attitudes, economic pressure, and even legal judgments regarding women’s appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically”.
She said that women were under assault by the “beauty myth” in five arenas: work, religion, sex, violence, and hunger.
A recent and interesting take on this overemphasis on femininity, in practical terms, is the adoption of the term ‘Shemale’ by hundreds of members of the Pakistani Hijra population. The transgender communities’ political representative Almas Bobby, recently went on record in several television interviews stating that people tend to disregard gender disparity and biology when they refer to hijras as khusras. “We will use ‘Shemale’ because we want to be known and recognized as women. They use the term to make fun of us, saying we are men acting and dressing like women. They use it to make us sound like disfigured beasts but we will use it to secure our position in society,” she said. While the attempt by the hijra community to reform the term ‘shemale’ is commendable, the same respect cannot be ascribed to SlutWalking. The latter attempt involves trying to reclaim a word that describes perception rather than gender and the said perception is not empowering.
Ironically, the beauty myth also identifies the same five spheres that also link in to areas where women are defined as ‘sluts’, whether in character, appearance or supposed practice. This is why women need to battle against the branding itself. Whether in Pakistan or in Canada, women should be fighting to expunge the word ‘slut’ from every language as generations fought to expunge the words ‘nigger’ and the post-colonial ‘savage’. In principle, the attempt to reclaim the word slut, is an attempt to put a fresh spin on perhaps the most out-dated of four-letter words.
One that categorizes women’s appearance and/or beauty according to how men have seen and continue to see fit to define it.
The attempt fails even before it has begun.