As waves of popular protest swept the Middle East and North Africa this year, an unlikely protest movement of a different kind that started in Canada has already gone global.
Toronto activists organized the first SlutWalk on April 3 in reaction to a policeman’s statement that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."
The SlutWalk grew from small protests into a worldwide phenomenon, a message against the notion that women themselves provoke sexual violence.
Participants at such SlutWalks carried banners declaring slogans such as “a dress is not a yes,” many of them dressed ‘provocatively’ to make their point.
The organizers’ message has resonated worldwide. Satellite SlutWalks are officially registered for 83 cities in 15 countries, including Brazil and Holland. India’s first SlutWalk is reportedly due to take place later this month.
But pundits are divided over whether SlutWalk is a good thing, whether it is the right medium for its message, and indeed, whether its message is the right one at all.
In Israel, where on average 1 in 3 women have suffered some form of sexual assault and 1 in 5 have been raped, figures on a par with other western countries, according to Miriam Schler, director of Tel Aviv’s Rape Crisis Center, is SlutWalk relevant?
For Efrat Oren, spokesperson for the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, although attitudes toward victims have changed in the wake of high-profile cases such as that of ex-president Moshe Katzav, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for rape in March, there is still a long way to go.
“We still see people in the media asking why the victim was walking at night, why she was dressed in a particular way,” says Oren. “They point fingers at the victim instead of the attacker.”
Schler thinks SlutWalk needs to be adapted to Israeli sensitivities. “It’s a great message as far as women being able to own and reclaim their right to their own body and to the way they dress,” she says. But “would religious populations be comfortable with what we are trying to say?” And would it be taken seriously? “These issues in Israel tend to become a parody,” she says.
Also, the relative rarity of the “mythological” scenario of stranger rape at night raises doubts over whether clothing and provocation are the salient issues. In 87 percent of Israeli cases, the victim and perpetrator know each other, Schler says.
Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and chairwoman of advocacy group Women of the Wall, welcomes minority efforts to reclaim public space, but argues that SlutWalk raises issues that “will take another two generations for Israelis to deal with.”
“The idea of modesty in the Jewish doctrine is so huge, going in the street and saying I can wear what I want touches a very deep nerve in Israeli society,” she says.
Dr. Orit Atias, one of the organizers of Bar Ilan University’s third gender studies conference, believes that provocative clothing is not the key issue.
Atias agrees with SlutWalk’s message that dressing in a particular way does not justify rape, but argues that the protest should aim at “breaking the stereotype,” not strengthening the association between sexual violence and what a woman wears.
“The Toronto policeman expressed a stereotype that is stuck in people’s minds, but his stereotype is a prejudice, I wouldn’t make an issue out of it. I would raise the issue of norms, or freedom.”
Even so, there is support for a demonstration of female empowerment in Israel, SlutWalk-style.
Rebecca Steinfeld of Oxford University, whose PhD deals with issues of gender and policy in Israel, says an Israeli SlutWalk “would be great.” Steinfeld took part in the 5,000-strong London demonstration on June 11, an experience she describes as “empowering” and “inspiring.”
SlutWalk “makes a crucial contribution to the contemporary feminist struggle,” says Steinfeld. It challenges “the general discourse on sluts, which condemns a woman as a ‘slut’ if she fails to conform to certain, invariably male, definitions of so-called ‘modesty.’”
Activist Leehee Rothschild sees SlutWalk as something “incredible” that legitimizes women’s sexuality and protests against its oppression, “whether it’s the denial of our sexuality, or the assumption that when a woman presents herself as a sexual creature, it means she wants to be sexual with everybody.”
Rothschild acknowledges that the likely opposition of Israel’s religious and conservative elements would make organizing SlutWalk in Israel a challenge, but thinks this justifies the effort. “You don’t march for your rights in a place where those rights are a given,” she says.
Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On, widely known for her work on sex trafficking legislation and women’s rights, says that the issues raised by SlutWalk are “absolutely” relevant to Israel.
“Women in Israel are subjected to verbal and physical abuse in public areas and in workplaces, often more than women in other western countries,” says Gal-On. “Refuting salient misconceptions like ‘promoting rape’ and promiscuity is highly relevant.”
Despite encouraging progress, parts of the Israeli media “still treat rape cases in a shallow, sensationalist and pernicious manner, at times forcing rape victims to endure what is often described as a 'second rape', emanating from the way their trauma is publicly exposed by the media,” she says.
Yet, one of Israel's most prominent women's rights activists is ambivalent about SlutWalk.
For Yael Dayan, daughter of Minister of Defense during the 1967 Six Day War, Moshe Dayan, who is “most proud” of her work on the groundbreaking sexual assault legislation passed by the Knesset in the 1990s, dress and provocation are no longer important issues.
“It’s too late,” says Dayan, who currently serves as Chairman of the Tel Aviv City Council. “In most countries dress code is not an issue now.”
While she still sees it as relevant in strict religious societies with a strict moral code, “a much deeper social issue in most countries is inequality” between men and women. If it was an issue of provocative dress, “men wouldn’t be able to go to the beach in Tel Aviv,” she says.
In any case, she adds, “it is very difficult to correlate a way of dressing or looking with causes of violence.”
Whether or not you agree with the medium, perhaps one of the most important messages SlutWalk can deliver is that whatever their religion, taste in clothes, or sexual preference, women, and men for that matter, should be free to make their own choices, without being subject to prejudice, stereotype or violence.
Rape Crisis Center Hotline numbers:
Hotline for Women: 1202
Hotline for Men: 1203
If you would like to make a donation to help strengthen Rape Crisis Centers across Israel, please visit http://www.1202.org.il/English/template/default.asp?siteId=1&maincat=3.
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