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.
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.