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In a small workshop in Boedo, Buenos Aires, a group of twenty-somethings are busy at work, the air thick with paint fumes and cigarette smoke. The atmosphere is one of excitement, as one by one, artful stencils writing ‘No Means No’ are hung out to dry, and T-shirts emblazoned with the same colourful phrase are tried on for size. With just three days to go, the Slutwalk team are pulling out all the stops to make today’s march as striking as its international counterparts.
“I’ve been told not to say this, however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not be victimised.”
When Michael Sanguinetti took to the floor at a York University crime prevention forum in Toronto, little did he know these infamous words would reverbrate round the world, making headlines and triggering the largest feminist movement since the sixities. Nor did the organisers of ‘Slutwalk’ expect that a concept founded on a careless remark would snowball into a global phenomena. Except that this time round, no bras would be burning – they would be bared.
The founders of Slutwalk Toronto explain: “Using a pejorative term to rationalise inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim.” It is this environment that thousands have tried to dispel by brandishing pickets, taking to the streets and baring all. “Don’t tell us what to wear,” one says, “tell rapists not to rape.”
And just four months after its conception, the movement has crossed the border from North to South America, with three organised in Argentina alone – Rosario, Mar del Plata and Buenos Aires. Five young women, led by literature student Flavia Baca Hubeid from Córdoba, are responsible for mobilising the march, and are hoping today to make as great a stir as their Canadian allies. Historical homeland of machismo, the appeal and importance of the march here in Argentina is exciting, and the imminent reaction to it perhaps even more so.
And in a country where domestic violence and rape proves to be a great problem – it was reported by Amnesty International in 2008 that a woman died every two days as a result of domestic violence in Argentina, and that same year, a judicial department announced that a rape was reported every six hours – the move is welcome.
Although initially the movement demanded an apology alone from Sanguinetti, what began as an outcry against the culture of victim blaming has now widened as a concept, questioning the way women are perceived in general. Where sexual repression was the main bone of contention for sixties feminists, the hyper-sexualisation of women today is the main point of the movement modern women identify with. As the organiser of ‘Marcha de las Putas’ explains: “Every woman, regardless of age, race or city has been subject to verbal abuse in the street.” Puta, concha, zorra – a mere few of the charming array of vocabulary hurled without a second thought towards women going about their day to day business, so common they have been adopted by the umbrella term piropos, male comments to women that range from flirtatious compliments to sexual catcalls.
Just this May in Buenos Aires, El Guardían journalist Juan Terranova was given the boot after addressing an activist, who complained about these catcalls, in a less than savoury manner. Arguing that piropos were innocent and flattering to the fairer sex, and including an imagined scenario in which he seduces said activist, he concluded with a phrase that has been translated optimistically as “I’d like to give her one”, and, less so, “I’d like to break her argument with my cock”. Nevertheless, neither goal was accomplished, and he was, very publicly, fired.
Feminism, or women’s rights, are terms that seem to inspire apathy or irritation in the modern psyche, and Terranova’s comments perhaps merely scrape the surface of an endemic problem – the casualisation of sexism. Though ostentible efforts have been made to bridge the pay gap, stem domestic violence and equalise education in Argentina, there is still a long way to go, and stereotypes to dislodge, as Flavia explains: “The greatest problem is that the media collaborates a lot with the objectification of women, and women themselves join in.”
Sterotypes are perpetuated on the most basic of levels; cleaning product brands use women alone, news anchors are suspiciously decorative and you would be hard pushed to find a girl’s magazine without a feature on how to be good at sex. Flavia sums it up saying “the profile of a woman that the media perpetuate is something statuesque, lacking in substance, controlled by men around her.” No surprise then that flippant misconceptions are rife. “Society consumes what the media puts before it, and it’s not strange that we look for or apply this image to the reality of day to day life.”
And so, slutwalk looks to debunk the most prevalent stereotype – the puta. It is women, the founders explain, that have predominantly suffered under the burden of the term. And as Flavia adds, not only is it isolating, it is indelible: “Puta is a word that is aggressive because society charges it with a dark past – from a young age these are women isolated from a good way of life and advantages, because they sleep with men without marrying them.”
The movement hopes to turn the word on its head: “Whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back,” the slutwalkers state. “’Slut’ is being re-appropriated.” Marchers don’t have to dress like ‘sluts’, though many do, and it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, they who receive the most press coverage.
And so how effective can running about in a pair of pants be? Indeed, the irony of parading the label to make a point is lost on some. Feminists Gail Dines and Melanie J Murphy think an attempt to reclaim the word at all is not about achieving sexual autonomy. The word, they write, is so far rooted into the “madonna / whore” dichotomy that referring to it at all bashes the nail further in to the coffin.
Growing up in a culture in which hypersexualised images of young women are common to the point of being banal, and in which “hardcore pornography is the major form of sex education for young men”, it is no wonder then that the pressure young women feel to be sexually available is immense. The identity that they must assume as a result is contradictory, add Dines and Murphy- taught that to be valued in this culture, they must “look and act like sluts”, while avoiding the label and it’s “dire consequences”. They believe then that adopting the term in any shape or form, misses the mark and only solidifies the negative stereotype.
How well the concept will be received in a country however whose values are far more traditional than Canada is to be seen. Flavia herself adds tentatively, “I don’t know if everyone will understand.” She hopes, in any case, that the march will open the floor for debate. She is optimistic too that the message is clear, and clearly ironic; “Our clothes, and use of the word are going to flatten excuses made by society to justify aggressions towards our bodies.”
She also hopes that the government will look up and take heed. As it stands, policies that really protect the victim and focus on the abusor are weak, or non-existent, she believes. A courtcase in April serves as a dire illustration of this; the jail sentence for an evangelical priest who has sexually abused two girls, of 14 and 18 years of age, was reduced because the victims “had already had sexual relations with other men”. As it stands, the government has not made an effort to support or even contact the movement.
It is, however, a an initiative that challenges society’s perceptions rather than the government. “Laws can come afterwards, politicians always get there, but as a society we need to be conciencious and start to look at other people as humans rather than objects.”
The march, organised by Verónica Lemi, Nadia Ferrari, Victoria Sandrini, Pamela Querejeta Leiva and Flavia Baca Hubeid, will be leaving from the Obelisk at 6pm and make it’s way towards the Plaza del Congreso today, Friday 12th August.