To begin with, I would like to narrate a recent personal experience that made me feel apprehensive at a place where I have been going daily, without any fear, for the last 4 years.
I entered my office building, called an elevator, and waited for it to arrive. He was sitting on the front sofa some distance away. I could feel his gaze fixed on me. When I looked at him to confirm my suspicion, he turned away. But I knew that as soon as I turned around, he would start staring again. I was completely unaware of his identity but his presence was making me feel extremely uncomfortable and unnerved in those few minutes.
This experience is not uncommon, nor was I the only girl who has ever gone through it. It’s also tempting to dismiss such occurrences as “minor”, “usual”, or “harmless”. However, it is pervasive and has a real impact on women’s access to public spaces. No matter how confident or brave, moments like these affect all women, of any age, from any background. Consequently, their ability to learn, grow, and be financially independent is also stymied.
The man was not an exception and my response to his wrongdoing was warranted. I also, like many out there, opted not to violate social script. Staring is one of the most routine experiences that women go through once they step out of their houses. However, the feeling accompanying this phenomenon makes it harder to stand firm in a tight spot.
I could physically feel his eyes boring into me, which caused a low-grade discomfort and tingling sensation which began to spread throughout my body. It all happened in a very brief moment but the guilt I experienced from letting the discomfort go unsaid was worse and may persist forever. That’s how women feel when they face harassment. They feel fear and anger in that one-moment experience, an embarrassment to speak out, and a pang of overwhelming guilt when they remain quiet.
Statement of power
What flummoxes me the most is the idea of confining women to the domestic sphere to prevent such instances on the grounds that men don’t have control over the way they act because it is ingrained in their biology – they’re “just being men”. Even so, if women step out of the house, they should know that men have the privilege to occupy the public spaces. However, these spaces are dark and dangerous for women. So, the bottom line is that women hold the responsibility to fix the situation with two options; either learn to put up with staring or stay at home.
But how valid is this stay-at-home argument? Would the contagion stop by restricting women behind four walls? Is anyplace immune to it? It is just another way to absolve men from their responsibility?
On the basis of such a notion, women are being forced back into private spaces. Consequently, we are still not able to achieve gender parity in terms of enrollment in school, eliminate discrimination from workspaces, and we don’t get to see gender-equal political representation.
The myth of gendered minds
It’s high time to get ourselves out of the trap of thinking that biology is the culprit. Men behave the way they do because culture allows it. We need to examine the behaviors and beliefs that sustain and fuel such an environment that normalizes such psychological violence.
“Boys will be boys”, the saying goes. Similarly, “If you put meat in front of a lion, he will eat it” is another version to excuse male misbehavior while denying the fact that humans have higher brain functions than lions. Other than certain essentialized assumptions about male biological natures, people often hop in with religious theology to liberate men from their responsibilities. However, religion does not support their assertions. Restraint and discipline are some of the main practices of Islam, interpretation of which is found in Sunnah too.
Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas:
Al-Fadl bin ‘Abbas rode behind the Prophet as his companion rider on the back portion of his she camel on the Day of Nahr (slaughtering of sacrifice, 10th Dhul-Hijja) and Al-Fadl was a handsome man. The Prophet stopped to give the people verdicts. In the meantime, a beautiful woman from the tribe of Khath’am came, asking the verdict of Allah’s Apostle. Al-Fadl started looking at her as her beauty attracted him. The Prophet looked behind while Al-Fadl was looking at her; so the Prophet held out his hand backwards and caught the chin of Al-Fadl and turned his face (to the owner sides in order that he should not gaze at her (Volume 8, Book 74, Number 247).
Women are done with carrying the burden of men’s behavior. They are tired of taking endless precautions to protect themselves, while still feeling constrained moving through public spaces. But notwithstanding the severity of the situation, an awful lot of people brush off such incidents. Women are told to just tough it out and ignore them because there is no solution to this issue – it is what it is. However, calling attention to the problem is an important first step allowing for a primary catalyst that could lead the way to a real solution.
While some women are still learning to handle the situation, many have already started making noise. They are calling out the phenomenon of power, domination, and inequality that is the basis of psychological abuse in the form of staring. They are angry but they are channeling their anger into awareness, engagement, and change. Men, too, instead of fleeing their responsibility and saying #NotAllMen, need to own it and take action. They should intervene, educate, call out their mates.