2.7.07

Looking

One of my closest friends has a problem with Blank Noise. It's a very specific problem and every time we enter into the argument, we follow the same familiar patterns: I feel obliged to adopt a feminist perspective of outrage at what he's saying and he assumes an alpha male aggressive position that is cleverly bound into a rights argument. “How can you stop me looking,” he'll ask, in mock outrage. Not a moralistic outrage but from a position that sees the act of looking as a sort of basic right. As long as I do not harm you, touch you, attack you... what right have you to stop me just looking?

And I will counter him, trying my best to avoid slipping into the nebulous and often weakening terrain of argument that rests on “personal experience”, by keeping this argument within the realm he has defined – one of rights. Are we denying someone a basic right when we say we “object” to being looked at in a way that is unwanted, sexually aggressive, invasive? Who decides when someone's look has changed from “Eesh, what terrible clothes” to one that is unsolicited and sexual?

In a sense the parameters of this debate seem to have already been defined by Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code that Annie has just written about. It mentions criminal liability for “words, gestures, sounds and exhibition of objects” and through that list has acceded that physical contact is not the only invasion that can be punished. It leaves out looking – why? Because this is too nebulous, too open to conflicting interpretation to be codified by law?

Blank Noise has always maintained however that a look which is invasive (you could call it a “leer”, I suppose), persistent in the face of expressed disapproval from its recipient and unwanted is equatable to harassment. “But if a girl is pretty of course I will stare at her,” says Alpha Male. And Alpha Female would agree that she would stare at a hot guy too. But initial interest is invariably tempered by the response to it. In seconds you will know if you are making someone uncomfortable. When you persist with your looking beyond that initial stage, you are being invasive. This is not a naive, innocent act anymore, it is not someone “looking” around at their environment or “glancing” at a pretty girl. It is a knowing incursion into someone's private space that is making them uncomfortable. The breaching of the line where the “right” to look infringes upon the other's right to “be” - stand, walk, wait for a bus without being hassled – is one that the perpetrator of the look is always keenly aware of. We assume this when we talk about "looking". This looking despite knowing it is unsolicited and making someone uncomfortable is what we are addressing.

Take a crowded narrow road like Bangalore's Brigade Road, for instance. Men drape themselves on the railings, looking at women passing by. Of course they are not always just looking. They reach out as well, to poke, pinch, grab. In the rush and the melee of all the concentrated shopping that unfolds on that street, women often just look downward, avert the male gaze and hurry past. But sometimes, when you're out shopping, you want to just wander down a road. You want to take your time, looking at stores, making eye contact with people walking the same street that you are. You don't want to have to seem like you're apologising for your presence on a public street. And yet when you're met by people “looking” at you (“checking you out”, “leering”, “sussing you”), you shrink into the barest minimal space and hurry on.

Blank Noise began holding interventions along the long stretch of road which was so far dominated by men. Power equations defined by the dominant male presence were challenged and then flipped as women from Blank Noise occupied the railings along the road, looking back at men who looked at them. Men were eased off the railings as women took over them. Often on these interventions there would be as many as 40 women along the railings on that road: a space which was usually occupied by women hurrying down it, looking downward now had women lounging around, enjoying what is, essentially, a public space for everyone to lounge around in.

So when men suggest that looks are easily misunderstood, I wonder if this is something that only men could believe. Blank Noise isn't talking about meeting someone's eye when you walk along a street. We're not talking about thinking “oh, that girl's cute!” at a bus stand and then walking on. We're talking about persistent, annoying, invasive looking which is completely unmindful of the response of the person you're subjecting to your insensitivity and “desire”.

We're talking about this.


And this.



Like that man on the train who reached out repeatedly to make my journey hell and then, pleading forgiveness, told me “he could not help it”.

"Looking" is not always a neutral, innocent act.


28 comments:

  1. The power of perception can make a duck look like the Nessie ! I think Mr. Ignoramous has made a couple of very interesting points in here .
    http://blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com/2007/06/hostility-or-my-name-is-not-neha.html#links

    However, I fail to see how you can object to anyone looking and then expect some kind of moral/legal action to be taken. This idea is way too impractical , you cannot imprison a man for wishing he stole your watch. Stealing your watch however can be condenmed but not wishing to steal. Besides , the world isnt centered around you. There will be distractions and unpleasentness in every walk of life. The trick is to learn to live with it. What you are expecting is, and this is something that will never happen and I quote my 11th grade Math teacher, that life should be delievered to you in a silver platter or a golden bowl. Sorry, it wont.

    And what the heck is an alpha female ? There is NO alpha female , just the silverback.

    :P

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  2. Is making eye-contact with a girl offensive?

    Is making repeated eye-contact offensive?

    P.S: I genuinely want to know what could go on in that girl's mind.

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  3. Thanks for writing this. I did not agree with Annie when she wrote that it is fine some time ago..

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  4. I'd just like to add that when we did the street interventions mentioned in the post -- where a dozen woman stood along a busy sidewalk staring at men -- 99% of the time the men we stared at knew EXACTLY what kind of a look we were giving them. And they did not like it one bit.

    All those men felt it - the uncomfortable stare of someone looking at you, undressing you, staring without relent. 99% of them immediately grew uncomfortable when we gave them "the look" and ran off!

    Point is, both men and women can know and experience unwanted staring and letching. Its not just a female thing.

    QED.

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  5. QED'd a bit too early I must admit.

    If you saw a monkey fly by you tomorrow or have Abdul Kalam walk by you in pink trousers and sporting a mohican, wouldn't you be terrified/perplexed/shocked?

    Granted, I was not there to witness the event, but I do know the exact thoughts that would run through my mind had I been there. And I can assure you that they would not be even in the same state as '99% of them immediately grew uncomfortable when we gave them "the look" and ran off!' - That's the sort of reaction you can expect from something on the cartoon network.

    I honestly do think, and please be assured, this is just an advice, that you need to take a step back and look at things before airing such strong comments.

    On a technical note, for you to QED such a statement, you should have one of the men who 'grew uncomfortable when we gave them "the look"' come and testify. You spoke on behalf of the defendant and the accused before delivering your verdict.

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  6. well.. this is my observation:

    If a bunch of guys stand/sit together and stare at a girl, she is uncomfortable. This is well known. This is the standard thing shown in movies also.

    If a bunch of girls stand together and stand at a guy, he feels uncomfortable. This is not so well known, but the BNP interventions seem to have discovered this fact out of nowhere, but every guy knows that.

    If a singly guy stares at a single girl, apparently she feels uncomfortable. I don't know. Let me assume so.

    If a single girl stares at a single guy, does he feel uncomfortable? Let me speak for myself first. I don't. I return the gaze, a strong powerful eye-contact. Longer it lasts, more I love it. Speaking for others, I don't know what their exact response is, but my guess (with 95% confidence) is that the guy WON'T feel uncomfortable.

    So, what's the difference?

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  7. Lord Almighty ! Did ye bestow the power of reading the minds of people onto this blesseth female ?

    I am sure 99% of the 99% who ran away must have thought that you are a bunch of weirdos who had nothing better to do.

    "Women say they think about sex too. They have no idea about they difference between our thoughts. Its like shooting a bullet and throwing it. If they knew what was going on in our minds , they'd never stop slapping us." - an anonymous male.

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  8. Mangs,
    I think that was an excellent post...i also think that thinking is much clearer when one is not angry!

    I like the way u have tried to answer many questions...

    but...like we all can see...there will be more.

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  9. Nisha5:27 pm

    Hi Mangs,
    I had also faced the same problem with a male friend of mine who said that there was nothing wrong in 'just looking'.
    But now I don't.
    You see when he said that, I simply asked him how would he feel if a homosexual man just 'looked' at him? Would he then use those same specious arguments that he was using with me? He doesn't argue anymore.
    Because womyn have just let go of all the wrongs committed by men that they think they are right.
    Why womyn don't get the rights they demand? Not because men oppose it. Let's not give them that much importance. I feel it's because womyn are not united.The adage, 'A womyn is womyn's biggest enemy'is ,unfortunately, very true.

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  10. anony110:11 pm

    First, I am a boy. And I feel VERY uncomfortable when a girl is looking at me because I do feel like that I am being judged on my clothes or something like that...and if its bunch of girls that my level of uncomfortable grows as N-squared where N is the no of girls.
    My question is just this--why do such questions get raised from girls' point of view only...anyone saying that boys or men don't get harassed (the way author of original post defined) is a liar or way too insensitive.

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  11. hello all,

    thanks for the responses!

    manu: alpha female is not in the oxford english?! hmmm.. let me go look again! but seriously, i think it's understood that it's really hard to book ANY case of harassment: how do you prove someone groped you on a busy street? i once filed a case for someone who molested me on a crowded night train and not just did no one come forth to be witness, one guy followed me on to the platform to tell me to please "not ruin the man's life" ie let the molester go 'cos a case against him will stay on his record and affect his job prospects. hm. so i think the idea of taking action out on the streets in ways that Blank Noise does reminds people of the law, sure, but also begins to ask what we can do on an individual level, because as you rightly point out, our responses and ways we deal with it personally are often way more powerful than what the law has in its capacity to do. especially with cases of street sexual harassment where it's hard to prove, constant and consistent and fleeting.

    the ignoramus: no, in itself of course it isn't. i think we're making a repeated distinction between hey, what're you wearing, you're so weird and HEY NICE CHICK. it seems that readers of this blog are finding it hard to believe that we can such a difference. i'm finding it very hard to believe that people CANNOT make the difference between someone looking at you sexually and someone looking at you curiously. is this just an innate female response? i know when i look at a man just when i should turn away so he hasn't winked at me. i stopped making eye contact for more than a brief second with men on the roads many years ago because more than a few seconds often (too, too often) leads to a wink or a leer and that's just.... tiresome. it also throws you somehow. however old and wise and experienced you are, everytime someone leers at you, it throws you. and you learn, pretty young, just when to turn away, when to look down and when someone is likely to cross a private space barrier. is this innate? i dont know.

    p: BNP is constantly interviewing and talking to men after and during interventions. the responses are often up at the shows.

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  12. Anonymous12:59 am

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_female

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  13. support comes from unexpected quarters :)

    thanks, anonymous!

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  14. palash kumar8:09 pm

    I think a dose of realism would do this place good

    All men "look". Your father looks, your brother looks, your husband looks and your son looks. In fact, in the case of Indian men, most men look, look, I mean if they don't lech with their eyes, they do so in their mind. Call it repressed sexuality or whatever but this is a fact.

    I am not too sure if daring men is a solution, as in the Bangalore case. And I am even more unsure that the men felt "uncomfortabl" when they were looked at by 40 women. They might wonder what is happening but not uncomfortable.

    The solution I think lies not as much in dealing with the men but with the women. I think Blank Noise should shift its focus a bit in holding workshops to train women how to tackle situations. No, don't laugh, I am not advocating self-defence though it can come very useful but I am suggesting confidence- bolstering exercises, to show the women that if they raise an alarm in a bus, a train or a market, they would not be left alone, and even if they are, they would still be able to stop the man frokm doing it again to someone else, or at least he will think twice before doing it --- "What if the girl starts yelling like the one that day," he would think.

    I once remember when a friend from the Northeast was accosted by a group of educated men in an office. She turned around and screamed, a scream which lasted a good 30 seconds and every one of them backed out.

    The men will NOT stop looking. Not today, not tomorrow. So forget about confronting them on the streets, for all you know, they could be laughing it off. Work on making each member of this blog a powerful, confident street fighter. Silence, as the film suggested, is your biggest enemy.

    The initiative Blank Noise is excellent. It's domain, however, is becoming increasingly ambiguous.

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  15. Jesus Christ, you guys need to get a sense of funny. We are not fighting on the alpha female thing , what do you mean by support ? LOL !!

    on a more serious note , the whole groping fiasco that happened with you was unfair and you were right in filing a case. Heck, I'd say that you shouldve slapped him right there but I dont agree with your BNP way of doing things. Defacing Public Property is WRONG ,Period .

    Laws are designed to protect and are usually on the defensive because they try to minimize mis-use and you cant blame anyone for it. I still stand by my statement that wishing that I had all your money isnt wrong in any way. However doing something illegal to make your money mine is wrong. Same goes with "looking" .

    "Women might say that they hate our guts but we love them for that" ;)

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  16. Amercian Desi8:20 pm

    It's a matter of culture.

    In my culture our parent's teach us that staring and glaring at people is RUDE AS HELL.

    Indians are not taught this simple thing from their parents obviously.

    And guys, if you are looking to date a girl, do you really think she will date you if you stare at her? And if you don't want to date her - why look?

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  17. Interesting. I don't agree that Indians don't learn this from their parents. If everyone behaved just the way their parents taught them, don't you think the world would be a better place? It is not as much about staring as it is about the way society has taught men to treat its women.

    I blogged about the staring issue recently.

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  18. Assuming that 'amercian desi' is American - going by what you say, American's don't stare because they are 'taught' at a very early stage to not stare?

    Surely you don't expect us to buy that, do you?

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  19. I've just got one thing to say, repeat rather: looking is not always innocent. and looking like 'that' is not anyone's right!

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  20. palash: check out our actionheroes section on the right panel.

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  21. Hi
    I have been following this blog for quiet sometime now but since I do so on my google reader I generally do not read the comments. However if I am not wrong a lot of people criticize you guys on the "looking" thing.
    And I must say that I have not been actively supporting this because of the "looking" thing. Reason is that I am do it myself. I mean I would definitely look a girl who is attractive and I don't think there is anything wrong in that.

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  22. I have been following this movement for a long time now and really like the way you go about educating(if that is the right word) people. However I have been a quiet follower because I do not agree with the "looking" part of your campaign and I do often look at an attractive girl. Call me MCP but I don't think it is wrong.

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  23. "...persistent, annoying, invasive looking which is completely unmindful of the response of the person you're subjecting to your insensitivity and “desire” ..."

    Completely agree, and this stuff is called:

    Leching
    Staring

    or even worse. Not looking. and I have reservations with making staring a criminal offence. We can try to make it socially unacceptable.

    but thanks for the attempt to explain. I think part of the problem is with the different ways in which men and women react to being looked at, as earlier commenters said, a guy might not mind being looked at by 40 girls, he will probably take it as a compliment.

    The perception of "being invaded" as opposed to "being admired" is important too. Since women are entitled to half the public space and men have no greater rights over that space, a via-media of both parties adjusting to each other's different perceptions is what would work best.

    regards,
    Jai

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  24. My point is a purely liguistic one, you've got no leching and no staring already in there.
    Putting looking in the list is just unnecessary. There's nothing with looking and I can say I wouldn't mind a homosexual looking at me if I'm walking in front of him, course I *would* mind him staring.

    'Looking' is not always a neutral innocent act. Sure, that's why we have better words for when it's not.

    I'd e-mailed you'll about this long back, heh.

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  25. And I think one needs to look at how the collective leering amounts to a general atmosphere of discomfort for women. What social and cultural values are implicit in a society where this is true? No one is legally infringing on the "right" of the men in my neighborhood here in suburban Colorado to stare, yet I can walk down the street or around a crowded grocery store and not feel sexualized. It's not just about what's legal but about about the cultural mindset and attitudes toward women in society.

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  26. Anonymous6:16 pm

    Some of the exact thoughts I was thinking when I first read Hemangini's post on the train incident are in her update:

    http://www.tehelka.com/story_main33.asp?filename=hub250807personal_histories.asp

    class, language, position, the automatic beating and stripping of the Bihari boy based on the automatic implied credibility of an upper middle class press reporter (women may disagree here, but yes your gender adds to the credibility), the two-&-half yr trial still ongoing.

    Vastly redeems the original piece. No sympathy to Sanjeev Kumar originally but yes now I feel he's gone thru enough.

    regards,
    Jai

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  27. Very good writeup there on tehelka, Hemangini.

    Justice is justice, but your ability to look at it all and ask those questions is definitely commendable.

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  28. One more thing:

    Staring / leching with the intent of making the woman aware of the secual context of the look -- that is anyway going away slowly?

    As more and more of the new generation realises that there are much easier, practical, and yes, acceptable ways towards sexual conquests, I believe this is going away.

    Repressed men are not going to vanish anytime soon, but it will become a much smaller issue than it is now as sexual experimentation and activity starts at a younger age and standing by the streetside staring is a waste of time for many. From what I know from teenagers, a new slim Nokia is a much better strategy.

    Women in Delhi tell me that more skin on the streets now hardly gets a look often. Harrasment on the street is definitely on the decline from what they remember of ten years back.

    Opportunities for sex are opening up every day, and things should only get better. Yes, there is a different India where it is not so easy, and so it will not completely vanish ever.

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