The pan shop was abuzz with men wanting a fix of their post-lunch addictions. Suddenly a woman’s thin voice wafted through the melee: “One gold flake light, Bhaiya.” A sudden shroud of silence descended over the din. Almost simultaneously, everyone turned to look at this petite, attractive woman in her late 20s, wearing a lovely salwar kameez.
The panwalla attended to her first – a ten rupee note travelling over the heads of men went in, a cigarette in all white came out. A few men turned away, but most kept starring at her as if she were an aberration, indignation writ large on some of their faces. The woman went behind the shop under the shade of two trees, lit her cigarette and puffed away.
A bunch of college kids who hung around the pan shop daily around this time starred at her silently for a minute. Suddenly, they burst out into loud animated conversations, each as if competing with the other to attract her attention. Men at the pan shop talked in whispers and many bent sideways to stare at her, few in awe.
If you didn’t know better, it was as if the woman was either culture jamming
, or was doing a solo shock-street play or guerrilla theatre
where the intention is to disrupt the patterns of life around to make people think.
Every observant Indian would remember seeing numerous versions of this scene at different times, places and situations after an attractive woman walked into just about anything: a meeting full of men in a corporate office; a room full of ‘elders’ in a village; a busy government office; a local train compartment filled with men; a busy street; a restaurant alone for lunch; a place of worship; a rickshaw or cab late into the night etc.
Eyes turn: some appalled other awed; conversations either come to a halt or get louder. The topic of discussion abruptly ends or changes. Many hints of indignation are passed around and men start staring at the woman.
That a woman – young and attractive – changes the atmosphere of the place she walks into is expected, for as an ancient bard once said: a thing of beauty is a joy forever. What is unnatural is the kind of questions that lurk behind this male and sometimes even female gaze like corollary to a theorem. What is this attractive woman doing alone in such a place? Why isn’t a man accompanying her? Is she available?
Isn’t she too brazen to be out in the open like this? Why is she so unabashed, confident? What kind of parents/husbands allow their women out like this? What kind of clothes is she wearing?
Of course, few men ever dare say these things. In strictly religious countries these ‘concerns’ are codified into laws and women are arrested even for daring to watch a sporting event
, or for roaming alone on the street even when dressed in clothing that look like wearable tents or if found in the company of a man who is not a relative.
In India, the stares of men ask silent questions. Questions and attention that a strong woman, like the one smoking alone behind a pan-shop, can ignore. There are other reactions that are a direct invasion of a woman’s right to privacy, dignity, equality and safety in a public place: Those who lech, leer, ogle at her body parts, pass despicable comments and follow her. These men are indulging in something that is ‘fondly’ called in men’s parlance as ‘chakshu-chodan’ – literally, visual rape.
A good number of these ‘staring’ men are actually busy contemplating how they could create a chance to ‘brush’ past the woman. This ‘brushing past’ is the most common form of sexual molestation every single woman who has ever stepped out of the house has faced in India.
It includes pinching of the buttocks, deliberately pressing their bodies against women in a crush, touching a woman’s exposed hand, neck etc, pressing or rubbing their phallus with the woman’s back in a crowd; grabbing breasts and putting hands inside a woman’s clothing.
These ‘molestation artists’ are experts who have figured the art of taking advantage of a crowd and a stunned, numb woman to make a quick getaway before she can realise what has happened to her. They rely on the meekness imbibed in girls in the name of dignity and beauty, and usually pick those who look scared and lost in a crowd.
After many public successes they grow bold enough to find targets at home, neighbourhoods, desolate places etc. to do what no man or woman should do to another –molest and rape. Rape – any rape – it can be argued, begins in the simple act of lecherous staring.
What is disgusting is that these men don’t differentiate between a ‘woman’ and a ‘child’. For them anyone weak – even young girls and boys – are fair game for their sick pleasures. I have friends who were groped in public before they turned 10, whose breasts were felt even before they had the chance to grow one and whose vaginas were fingered for pleasure even before they had any inkling that there is any connection between vaginas and pleasure.
At this point, many ‘wishing well’ for women, would argue in favour of locking up women in homes. In many countries – like a few in the Middle-East - these are socially and legally enforceable. This is where truth becomes stranger than fiction because despite the possible brutality on the streets, house is the most unsafe place for a woman
It is logical: if a man is brazen enough to molest in public where there’s a danger of being caught, what might he dare in private? The molestation in public places is but a fraction, a kind of trailer to all the rapes, beatings, molestation and torture that happens behind closed doors when a boy or a girl is alone with a ‘trusted’ family member or friend, when a wife refuses to submit to her in-laws, when a married woman says she isn’t interested in sex that night, when a child goes to her neighbours…
The issue is not about women being in public - House arrest is no solution. The problem is the patriarchal system that teaches men to consider themselves superior in every way to women and permits them to treat women like creatures without feelings or rights, while teaching women to be meek and afraid of men and looking down at those who speak up to assert their rights.
If you ever have had stage fright, you know that a human stare is one of the most disconcerting, unnerving and uncomfortable of all experiences. Because we do not know what each person is looking at, thinking and judging us for. One-on-one interactions are easy because you know exactly where the eyes of the person you are talking to are looking. You can control the direction of their stare by your actions and words.
This is also one of the reasons why lights in parties and pubs are dimmed because they want to reduce the possibility of adverse ‘judgement’. Mostly, leaders are nothing but those men and women who have mastered the art of being confident in a sea of staring, judging humans. That is also the reason why leaders dress well, minimising the possibility of an adverse judgement.
In simple terms, staring heightens threat perception; the reason why you are advised not to directly stare at a wild animals. Because staring is a show of power. When you stare, you dare.
A man staring at a woman in public is an affirmation of his power over the woman. For the man it is an instant ego booster, an energy drink. Whatever might be his position at office or home - he might be a peon trampled upon by everyone or a powerful businessman without ‘control’ over his wife - but in public, before a woman, he becomes THE MAN once again. He knows that a patriarchal society gives him that kind of power over women allowing him to subjugate her by his mere stare.
The question of women’s safety in public is the question of men who stare at women like they were meat ready for consumption. Dismantling this offensive stare can be the first step in making India safe for women. Men who do not stare do not plan attacks.
The problem is that one cannot penalize ‘staring’. Besides, there is also a good, innocent, appreciative, even jealous stare when we see someone we aspire to be.
This distinction between a good stare and a bad stare is crucial. Perhaps one needs to be taught the difference from a young age. Most young men learn the power of the ‘stare’ sitting at street corners, looking at women passing by and rating them. Another version of this gaze is at places like beauty pageants. Attempts have been made to dismantle even this (See: Miss World pageants will no longer require women to parade in bikinis
Mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and friends could help men understand the dynamics of this stare, of how uncomfortable it makes a woman and how it is more than just an invasion of a person’s right to privacy in a public place. Most men who stare have no idea about the kind of psychological, emotional and even physical trauma of a stare simply because they have not faced it themselves.
This ‘education’ of men will do two things: One is that the men will be more conscious of their own actions and their stares in public. Two: whenever they see such leching, they will feel more empowered to react. Coming in the field of view of a lech is a simple, non-confrontational method while starring at the man leching at a woman can lead to his shame but could also cause confrontations. Who knows, this simple act of blocking leching, of shaming those who do, might prevent countless molestations and perhaps even rapes.
As for those of you who think this article is an exaggeration of a ‘minor’ problem, I would suggest you talk to women you know. Ask them about their experiences with stares in public. Ask them what they faced and felt.
Be patient when they open up for I assure you that once they do, their experiences will numb you to a stunned silence and move you to anger. Because the truth is, it is an impossibly tough job being a woman in India and retaining all your mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual powers at the onslaught of this never ending violence.
The woman with the salwar kameez and a cigarette dangling between her fingers continued smoking under the tree behind the pan shop, unmindful of the attention her presence was generating. She looked at the birds on the tree, at the traffic on the busy Mumbai road as she smoked, lost in thought. She finally threw the still lit cigarette stub on the ground, looked at the college boys without expression, ground the stub with her sandals, and coolly walked away.
It was just another incident, just another day in the paradise called India for just another average Indian woman.(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His writings have appeared in India and abroad)Read More:
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