SlutWalk Melbourne

'Slut'. I hate that word. I really really hate that word. Even as used in The Ethical Slut. It just sets my teeth on edge.

But I totally support the SlutWalk. To recap, a stupid cop in Toronto, during a talk on rape prevention, suggested that if women didn't want to get raped, they shouldn't dress like sluts. (I won't unpack the idiocy of that statement here because many feminist blogs have done so quite adequately already.)

In response, women in Toronto and now all over the world have staged SlutWalks in protest of the victim blaming inherent in the cop's statement, and in solidarity with the women who are so often on the receiving end of this kind of crap.

And I think it's great. Not because it is a 'reclamation'*of the term as has so often been said, but because it taps into the Riot Grrrl credo of the 90s that I loved so very much. Riot Grrrls were all about rubbing your face in patriarchal assumptions about women. You get treated like property? Write the word 'Property' on your belly and make people confront what they think of you. It was aggressive and raw and made people very very uncomfortable because of the way they would see their internalized assumptions about women externalized on women's bodies, often in grotesque and disturbing ways. In short, it rocked.

There's been much talk among the participants to 'slut it up' for the walk. Lots of discussion of what 'provocative' stuff they'll wear and how it's such a celebration of women's sexuality. I see the politics of it a little differently. I don't think there is any particular need to dress any differently than you normally would, because somewhere out there is someone who thinks it's ok to call you a slut regardless of how covered or uncovered you are. So rather than yet again reinforcing the stereotypical image of  a slut as someone who dresses and acts in a particular way, I would like to see people take that horrible little word and slap it across every woman of every age in every kind of dress and say, Riot Grrrl style: THIS is what you think of us for simply having been born female.

Because that's the point. If you get sexually assaulted, NOTHING you were wearing or were doing is going to be good enough. There will always be some moron going on about how you shouldn't have gone there or done that or worn such-and-such or had a sexual or professional or intellectual history. The bottom line is that we live in a global society that believes femaleness is a fault and that if something happens to you, well then that's just what you're going to get if you  insist on existing while female.

So yes, I'm going to the Melbourne SlutWalk and I'd encourage anyone of any gender and any orientation who can attend to do so. Because this isn't about one kind of woman or one kind of world view or even women as a group. Victim blaming and a culture that allows and even expects it are toxic for all of us, whoever we are and wherever we are. It is important then that, when handed the opportunity on a silver platter, we lend our voices to the protest against it.

*Because I am a nerd: 'slut' has been a pejorative used to shame women from the 11-12th century (Middle English, basically). Its secondary and less often used meaning of female dog only appears in the late 19th century. Think about that for a second. 'Bitch' meant female canid before it was used as an insult for women (Old English, and 14th century, respectively). 'Queer' meant strange or weird before it was used to insult gay people. These words were neutral once and can literally have that neutrality 'reclaimed'. 'Slut', on the other hand, entered the world (or at least the OED) fully formed as an insulting term for a woman. I'm all for rendering it useless and refusing to let it be used to shame women, but I don't think it's a candidate for reclamation as such because there's nothing to reclaim.

A Moral, if Meaningless, Victory

A Facebook friend shared a video last week titled "Slap on face of Jamat islami fanatic Fareed Paracha."  I've never heard of him, but I do know of the JI - anybody with a passing interest in Pakistan would have heard of the religious fundamentalist party -  so I took a look.

The video is from a panel-discussion type of show called "Frontline" which airs on Pakistan's Express News Channel. I don't know what the discussion prior to this clip was about for sure, but the first woman they refer to is Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist extradited to and convicted in the US of attempting to kill US army personnel who were interrogating her in Afghanistan.  The second woman referred to is Asiya Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law. She has appealed the verdict and has been receiving some amount of support from politicians, but it seems if you support her and - implicitly or explicitly - criticize the Blasphemy Law, there is a strong likelihood that fanatics will kill you. Salman Taseer, former Governor of the Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the former Minister for Minorities, found that out the hard way.

So as Pakistan rushes headlong into a future bleaker than its past, seeing someone really lay into one of the (many, many) architects of that collapse elicits a certain amount of glee. The first speaker is lawyer and activist Asma Jehangir, who is well known for speaking out against fundamentalism and the oppression of women and minorities in Pakistan. Her comments, while accurate, are reiterations of things she has said - and no doubt will have to say - hundreds of times before.

The second speaker was a complete surprise however. As I watched the video, I realized that the very familiar-looking commenter from the audience is Zarina Saeed, one of the most inspirational teachers I've ever studied with. How's that for a bonus?

Most of the discussion is in Urdu, so I've added a translation after the video.

Asma Jehangir, mid-discussion: Did you see no women other than Afiya Siddiqui? We petitioned for her; when the ISI took her, you stayed quiet. You didn't say a word.


Fareed Paracha: What can we do? We're obliged to work. We talk about everyone (meaning we represent everyone, I think)


AJ: Look, what I'm saying is that this debate should not be twisted. They claim to be the friends of the poor and the enemies of the US when they spent ten years with Zia-ul-Haq working shoulder to shoulder with the US. After that, how can they...?


Host: [indistinct]


FP: I'd like to say a word here...


Other panelist: [inaudible]


AJ: We [The NGOs working for women and minorities] were never with the US [repeats over the babble]. When the US was working with/through them [the Jamat] we were out there organizing protests for the rights of women. There was no Afiya Siddiqui back then.


When the ISI took Afiya Siddiqui, I filed a petition in the Supreme Court, Petition no.5, that very same day. They stayed silent. Nobody spoke up then.


When they took her to the US, when she was out of our jurisdiction, that was they day they decided to make it an issue. Other than Afiya Siddiqui, do other women live here or not?


FP: [talking over AJ] We talk about all of them.


AJ: Why don't you talk about them too? I am threatened daily. Talk about me too. People have tried to kill me, people have insulted me, and yet you have never spoken about that.


FP: [sounds like he's asking the host to intevene] I just want to say one sentence...[Drowned out by applause]


Audience comment:


Zarina Saeed: These panelists seem to be in a kind of denial, that there is no extremism, no intolerance, no nothing. Tell me something, what is the definition of intolerance and extremism? When a society is extremist, there is some parameter against which that can be checked. And that parameter is that those who are weak, those who belong to marginalized communities, how are they living? What is the status of women in our country? What is the status of minorities in our country? Are they prospering?


You're all sitting here...our Mall Road...once upon a time, there were lots of properties here that were owned by minorities. Where are those property owners now?


Host: Who got rid of them?


ZS: is an intolerant community. The Mafia can take can put a notice up in front of a house saying that the owner is a heathen or a _munafiq_ and the community will harass them and force them to leave. That's what happens in our country.


Then there's Asiya Bibi who we've been talking about. Asiya is...we're  talking about an illiterate, uneducated woman and we think Islam is in danger from her? Our religion isn't so small...for God's sake...don't make Allah out to be so small...that is the biggest of blasphemies..when you reduce God to human beings. This [God, I imagine] is something beyond us.




I am amazed that there is such outrage over Asiya Bibi, who is uneducated and illiterate, and yet when one of your ministers from Balochistan buried women alive, nobody issued a fatwa.


[Host: He's a People's Party minister.]


ZS: That is a heathen. He is a heathen. He committed blasphemy. Because he turned around and said that this was a 'tribal custom'.


[Host: [echoing ZS] 28 August, 2008]



Did any political party accuse them of blashpemy then? They did not. Why were you quiet at that time? Why were you silent at that time?


Now you're talking.. the Jamat people are talking... Mr Paracha is very respected...he's talking about how they've served the poor. Putting the poor aside, this rich man, this feudal as you'd call him, his power scared you off?


FP: I would very respectfully like to say that her own tolerance is so low that she refers to a person who has a PhD and academic distinctions worldwide, three times as uneducated and illiterate simply because she professes a belief in Islam, simply because she...


Host: [interrupting] She's talking about Asiya Bibi, not Afiya Siddiqui.


[Brief discussion - I can't make out who says what, but eventually Paracha realizes his mistake]


ZS: My reponse to this is only that they are reinforcing my point. We are in a state of denial and we are not willing to listen to the Other. We are that biased.




None of this means anything, of course. The country - at least the idealized one I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with all my life - is pretty much gone. Displays like this can make us feel good for a moment or two, but the "crossroads" that everyone seems to think Pakistan is at, as Ahsan Butt suggests, are actually fast disappearing in the distance.