The Politics of a Stare

Ever been gawked at? Don\'t let anyone tell you the man is just \'appreciating beauty\'

Published: 16th September 2015 05:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th September 2015 05:44 AM   |  A+A-

BENGALURU: A few days ago, I visited Charminar in Hyderabad. My friends and I were quite excited about the trip and couldn’t wait to shop for trinkets and try the famous Hyderabadi biriyani and kebabs. However, the minute we stepped out of the cab, it started pouring and the harassment began.

It is not like I did not anticipate it. We had been told to dress “appropriately” (as if dressing conservatively ever stopped a woman from being harassed). We followed the rules and wore patialas, kurtis with duppattas. And surprise, surprise, we still got stared at. Apparently we were “byudiful, gorjuz girls enjoying the rain”.

Being conditioned to ignore such comments, we walked into a restaurant to pick up some food, where we were told by one of the waiters to go upstairs to the air-conditioned area as it would be more “comfortable”. It felt like an insult to my intelligence because a cursory glance around the place made it obvious why we were being shuffled off upstairs. The ground floor was full of men who were staring at the five of us as though we had just walked out of a UFO.

A few days later, in the middle of a heated discussion in class, a classmate turned to me and asked what I thought about men who stare at women. I was not sure

I had an articulate answer, so I asked her where exactly the question was coming from. It turns out, a (male) college professor had told her that women should not get offended when men stare at them because they are merely appreciating beauty.

I was so angry I could barely get any words out. We have the right to be angry when a man stares at us. We have the right to be angry when a man passes a remark about our bodies. Because no, it is not a compliment. It does not make us feel beautiful. We get to decide when a stare makes us uncomfortable. We can tell the difference between a man “appreciating our beauty”, and a man who is trying to “put us in our place” by making us feel like we don’t belong.

We all know the stare I am talking about — the kind that makes our skin crawl. The kind that makes us avoid eye contact. The kind that makes us retreat into a shell, just so that we can make ourselves invisible. So no, it is nothing remotely romantic, it is not personal, it is not friendly. It is an expression of power designed to make us feel vulnerable, to assert the masculinity of public spaces.

In class, we were once told that everything is political, every interaction is an expression of power inequality. Street harassment is political, the beginning of the continuum of sexual assault. It is not “catcalling”, it is not “eve-teasing”, it is harassment, plain and simple.

I myself have never had the courage to directly confront a harasser. I don’t know if I ever will. When I look back at the many times that

I have been harassed in some way or the other, I think of all the things I could have done and said. But the reality is that when it happens, most people either ignore it or just freeze up.

I don’t have any solutions or advice for women who face this. But don’t let anyone take away your right to get absolutely furious at a man who stares at you because, in the words of Leymah Gbowee, it is time for women to stop being politely angry.

 

 - Shamolie Oberoi blogs at  https://bicyclewithoutafish. wordpress.com.

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