When I was young, my mother and grandmothers would often make me sit in a doorway and then put a handkerchief over my head. They would hold salt and owa and circle their fists around my face, saying something that I still do not know. Then they would burn the owa and salt and if it sent a smell through the house, that meant that mala dhrusta lagli hoti. That I had been “cursed by the evil eye.” It was all very dramatic.
This is a very old Maharashtrian practice. In the old times, it was probably to combat the curses that people threw at each other verbally. But now, I believe this dhustra comes from a very different place, from the eyes of men staring and staring and staring at women. I don’t know if owa and salt are strong enough to fight that because so many men consider this an acceptable social practice.
I was on a sleeper coach bus from Pune to Ahmadabad. My seat was near the back, and the last few seats were occupied by men who stared while I got settled. Whenever I opened my compartment door, they would be looking. So I stood up, went to the driver and asked him when the guys in the back were getting off the bus. His assistant walked me to my seat and looked up at the men, wondering what to say. I quickly closed my compartment door and didn’t sleep at all.
This has happened on many bus journeys. This has happened in many public spaces. And I am sure that every single Indian woman has had – at least once – a random man staring at her for far too long, letting his eyes run down her body while he imagines what’s underneath.
My question is: How do we change this social norm and tell men to lower their gaze as a sign of respect?
I want to walk up to men who stare and ask them “Do you actually believe that staring at me like that is going to make me interested in you?” But then I’d realize slowly, uneasily, that maybe they don’t want my attention at all. They probably are content with their imaginations.
I don’t think that people talk about this openly. I think we need to talk more about it. But unfortunately we live in a society when sometimes a woman points out that a man is staring at her, her companions may say one of two things. Firstly, they may say “Just ignore it”. And secondly, they may say, horrifyingly, “Oh do you think you’re that attractive?”
We shouldn’t blame women for where the eyes of men wander. Nor should we tell women to remain passive about it. Communication is important to change. I think we need to vocally shame men who will stare at a woman’s inner thighs when she’s wearing shorts on a two-wheeler. The more we women stay silent about where men look, the longer the staring will continue.
I have over time, ignored such looks, but I realized recently that expressing anger and disgust is much more effective. So, when the stare becomes especially piercing, I’ve learnt to stare back and shake my head as if to say “What?” With some of the more lewd stares, I don’t hesitate to say “Kai baghtait? Laz nai vatat ka?” What are you looking at? Don’t you feel any shame?
When I was younger, I refrained from wearing revealing clothes, adhering to rules from my mother and grandmother, but now, I understand that the gaze of men should not affect the way women dress and behave because that gives men even more power. I recently came to the realization that perhaps the dupatta was invented to cover a woman’s chest. Now, though fewer women are wearing the duppata in the cities, we are instead tying them around our faces when we ride our two wheelers and sit on the local buses. It is for the pollution, it’s to keep the tan away (which is another issue altogether), and also, I believe, to keep eyes off of us.
How do you think we should handle the staring issue? How do we create a society where women are free to wear what they want without eyes on us?