I wonder if it’s just me. Every time I would step outside my house as the lockdown 2020 was partially getting lifted around June- to buy groceries or take a walk sometimes- the male gaze would make me so uncomfortable that I would rush back inside.
Well, but I do live in India. Should I not be used to it? I have been ogled at on the streets since I was 12 years old, I was punched on my chest at 3 in the afternoon one day in a very prominent locality of my city and, I have been followed on winter nights. The fear does not dissolve with time. It only becomes more present with every incident, so much so that I don’t even like going out anymore.
Patriarchy is the pandemic that has been keeping women in lockdown since generations now.
For several days after the lockdown was uplifted, I avoided the streets.
Yes, I was afraid of the virus but more so, I was afraid of reliving the fear again that every woman in this country is subjected to. I was afraid that I have lost the habit of somehow trying to exist despite the stares.
So, I stayed inside more. At the cost of my mental health. I have been at home for months at a stretch. Surely there is an undeniable privilege in that. Most women in this country cannot afford to stay at home just because they feel scared. They have to go outside and work, fend for themselves. They don’t have a choice of staying at home and working from laptops. But am I asking too much if I want to feel safe in my skin?
The psychological horror that was preventing me from wearing my favourite clothes before had now manifested into a bigger fear post the lockdown. I am not a social scientist; I have no idea why men act the way they do. I stayed inside because the once or twice that I did go out, the eyes of those semi masked faces would follow me, and my heart would shrink.
Perhaps, I had lost the habit of exposing myself to this fear and craved the safety of my room often. Perhaps, I am so exhausted from carrying all the fears that I do that I don’t have the energy to go out. I was in Tokyo when one night I had a terrible fight with my sister. I was so sad and decided to take a walk to clear my head. It was 11:30 at night and that was a country where I did not even speak the language or read the signboard on roads.
I only knew how to say thank you in Japanese. But there, I felt safer than I ever felt in my own country, my home. Just two days before, a poll had indicated that Tokyo was one of the safest cities in the world and it sure felt like that. I walked in lanes that were partially dark and empty. I went to drink beer at a shady bar. I was safe throughout. I just felt human on the streets, not a woman whose body is made to feel like it’s not her own at all in some places more than others in this world. In some places, it is a dream for a woman to take a night walk or go for a jog early in the morning without fear of being stared at, groped, or worse. Why do I feel we don’t talk enough about this?
Somehow, the image of these men’s eyes who would stare at me during the walks post lockdown is ingrained in my mind.
The eyes following me as long as they possibly can while the men pass me walking, cycling, or driving. I tell myself that I know better than to know that it is from an immense entitlement that one thinks they can ogle at someone without the sense of personal space. I know better but, in those times, it feels like I am losing the agency of my own body.
I wonder who gave him that much power over me that he by only looking at me can make me feel such discomfort. It is the power handed over to him through generations by a structurally flawed society.
In March when it felt like our lives were going to change- and it surely did thereafter, amidst all the worries and chaos, a tiny part of me felt that now we could reimagine a better world from here. Didn’t crisis make people empathetic? Somehow, now it feels, it drove people to their worse. Sometimes we fail to recognize the elephant in the room. We normalise abnormal behaviour so much that it becomes the new normal. That is how much we have normalized hate, intolerance, violence, and the constant fear of it in our lives.
I understand the fatigue that comes from fighting these fears and other ailing problems of living in a misogynist society. But I hope someday we will have that the strength to do something- I don’t know what but something good enough to battle the centuries-old power politics and break it. Somewhere deep down, I believe if we all come together and fight this war; we might win it.
Who knows? Till then, it’s just me and my pepper spray against the world.