<%-- Page Title--%> Musings <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 149 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 9, 2004

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The Staring

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

It happened again, the other day. I was on my way to work in the stifling heat of the afternoon sun, with no AC to give me respite. Riding in the midst of Dhaka traffic in the infernal heat is just asking for trouble. I was fanning myself as my car halted in the middle of a nightmare traffic jam. Something made me turn and look at the car directly beside me -- maybe it was my sixth sense, or possibly, boredom -- when I saw a group of young men all staring at me.

Ordinarily I would just roll my eyes at such "oglers" and look away. This time, however, being definitively more annoyed than usual, I stared back. Childish, perhaps, but necessary at times. Of course, as soon as I did that, I was subjected to catcalls, hoots and tongues sticking out.

Ok, so maybe it was not the best of ideas.

I quickly came to my senses and looked away, praying that traffic would start moving fast. It did. I breathed a sigh of relief as the car started moving away -- a second too soon -- as I realised when I looked back and found, to my horror, that the car of hooligans (that is how I like to refer to them) was following me. They followed me from Tejgaon all the way to Karwan Bazaar from where they drove off with a resounding screech of their tires, no doubt trying to teach me a lesson -- or maybe they were just flirting?

It is not unusual for people to stare in Dhaka. Truthfully, my male friends cannot understand why I find this so disturbing. After all it's not a crime to stare, they keep saying. If the situation poses no threat, then why should you be so affected by it? When faced with such a rational question it is difficult to come up with an equally rational answer. What offends me every time, is that people -- especially men -- have no shame and no conception of how intrusive it is when people stare at you when you are doing something completely commonplace, like riding in a car on your way to work.

Yes, men think it is irrational and hypersensitive to react to something that they perceive as such a small and insignificant part of a twenty-four hour day, or a seven-day week. I don't blame them. How can they understand? Being the gender that is not targeted with harassment or sexual violence, it is hard for them to fully comprehend where exactly this fear (or irritation, depending on how you look at it) comes from. As it is, men already suffer from the misconception that women have a tendency to cry "wolf" when it comes to gender-related incidents.

The truth is that when women are stared at in public places, they are made to feel alienated and isolated. Whether or not they are in danger, it is simply that feeling that of not belonging, or of being treated differently because you are a woman -- and I don't mean in the chivalrous sense! It is an invasion of privacy. And if one reciprocates by staring back or (God Forbid) even saying something, they might have to face the repercussions, such as someone following you, or taunting you, or generally harassing you. Where does that leave women? We feel helpless and unable to speak out against anything in fear of having to deal with the aftermath. A tad bit dramatic, I'm sure most men are thinking, as they read this.

Some men argue that such "individual" attention should be flattering to women, and that they would enjoy it if the situation were reversed, but they are wrong. It is unwelcoming, unflattering and totally nerve-wrecking. It is not the act of staring that frustrates women, but the thought process behind it. Staring at someone unabashedly is often a prelude to lewd comments and gestures that not only humiliate women, but also leave them feeling helpless and victimised. If a man spent a day in a woman's shoes, I would hope he could fully appreciate the way it feels to be subjected to such uncalled-for attention. Only then would men finally be able to understand and accept the fact that when women say that certain forms of staring are violating, it is a reality that we face every day and not just a figment of our imagination.



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