The male gaze, like the eye of Sauron, follows you everywhere. Everything you do is to keep you safe from it, for it is not a kindly gaze. It does not mean you well, and it will seek you, and find you and tear your entire life to shreds. Protect yourself at all costs from it. Cover up.
This is what we were taught, and this is how we have always lived.
We did not feel its burden, since it was always there until it was lifted. And when it was lifted, the relief was immense. It was as if the blind had been given sight, the deaf hearing. The world was washed, fresh and it awaited us — with no threats. We could be free to be, I could be free.
Freedom is not easy. I remember the first agonising moments — nay, months — in the local swimming pool. There was nobody who was looking at me, nobody who cared to pay attention, not even the indifferent life guard. And yet I found it difficult to step forth in a normal swimming costume. The human body has been designed with a cover, we have skin. And yet, what was natural was not enough. I found myself in the deep sea diving department of a sports good shop looking for more cover. The black full sleeve and full leg covering satisfied me — it would surely hoodwink the evil eye that must be following me. Like a ghost limb, the fear was real, the pain was ever-present. And the black covering a talisman to keep it at bay.
It was totally unnecessary where I was now. In fact, I stood out in my funny black all body wear, and was now noticeable. From being one of the many, I was now the cynosure of all eyes. Some muttered, but no one said anything. Slowly, over months, the fears receded. I could be myself, the cover was not essential. I did not need the silly trauma of stuff sticking to me, tough to wear and pull off — I could have it easier and nothing bad would happen. I was free to be myself. If I chose, I could be the covered one, and if I chose, I could be, like the others, in any level of coverage, and it would be fine. To be able to give a woman that confidence is a gift that only a mature community can give — and it is often under appreciated. The gift of freedom, it is the most precious of them all.
I remembered the swimming pool months again recently because I noticed that things had changed. A recent trip to Dusseldorf, and then a week’s stay in a ‘multicultural’ area in London brought it home to me. The gaze, it had followed me. I was caught unawares.
I stepped out of my hotel in Dusseldorf and tried to catch one of their local buses. As it happens in a new place, I caught the wrong one, or one going in the opposite direction. It was all good, I was exploring the town, was I not? But I did step off fairly soon, before it headed off towards the outskirts of the city. It was me, and a map, and I had just stepped off it. I needed to get back into the central grid so that I could navigate on my own. It wasn’t bad, the city was clean and every street there seemed to have an awesome bakery. Some had two, one clearly older than the other. Some had chairs out in the front, on the street. And that is when I noticed something new. They people seated there were not the mummies with pushchairs that I would expect at this time of the morning. They were men, with beards. Looking out on to the street. With what I thought was a watchful eye, but could well have been some internal dream state. None of my business, as I walked past. And again, and then again, street after street, just with men on those chairs. This was not the Europe I knew and had explored just a few years ago. There were women, some in the older shops. Grumpy middle aged women surrounded by hundreds of colourful bakes and tarts. They served me with a smile, but no one knew the way out of there. Then, there were women, their head covered by a scarf, either carrying a college bag or pushing a pushchair purposefully, as if to linger in that lovely spring sunshine was just wrong. Where were the people, the normal people who stepped out to feel the sunshine on a beautiful morning? Were there no housewives with a moment to rest? No children who were not yet at school? No one who could let their hair down?
I speak of hair for a reason. There were whispers that I heard of insistent traditions that wanted women to bind their hair. For loose hair was a sign of loose women. I was not one, but I will not be told what to do. I do not tie my hair, whatever state it is in, for that is my freedom. An active, bouncy, in your face, fly with the wind, get wet in the rain, fall all over the place freedom. I walked down those streets in Dusseldorf noticing that I was the only one expressing such freedom — there was not one person that day, in that part of town like me.
I stood out of course because of my skin colour. I am Indian, north Indian. Fair by Indian standards, dark by European standards. Not olive, not yellow, not brown, but the colour of my skin places me quite precisely. I walked those streets, admiring the baked goods, being watched by the men outside the cafes, being judged and telling myself — this is Europe. I have been here often, and walking in a town is normal. I would have normally paused to have a coffee in one of these cafes, but then, there were no other women there. And women, we are mindful. We watch for these things. Boys don’t, I know. I did not stop for a coffee even though I was tired. We are moulded by the male gaze, and it was as easy as that.
Finally exhausted, I stepped into a shop that sold everything, hoping to be understood. There were two men in there, and I asked them for directions. They knew little, but they tried to be helpful. It was their town, and I was surprised at how little they knew — but then, these are times of controversial movements across countries and it is wise to speak less in a foreign country, where neither you nor the person in front of you knows the local tongue. We found a pidgin English — and as I got (terrible) directions to the centre of town, he asked me, with a look at my unbound hair — “You are from India, yes?”. I knew what the question meant, and answered the literal. “Yes”. I said. As I said, it is best to say less when in foreign spaces. They nodded, as if in understanding. I knew at that moment, they let me off. I was not one of them, so I would not be bound by their rules. Had I been one of them, would I too, like the women I saw in those streets, be wearing a head scarf?
I found the answer to that in London, a few months later.
London, for me, is home. I have lived here for many years, and in many parts, both city and suburb. And I have been away too, so each time I come back, I find it anew. As I did this time. This time I chose to stay in a place that had just suffered a tragedy, a community that had risen to help itself as the system lumbered up to aid slowly. It was a multicultural area, known to be bohemian almost. The diversity in dress is what I first noticed there — so many people from so many countries, dressing half locally, half traditionally. But in all of that, as the days passed, I noticed that it was only the local English girls who wore dresses. The others had trousers on, and more often than not, carried a scarf. I too, but only because I was a traveler, always had a scarf around my neck. They — more often than not — wore a head scarf. This was London, so we don’t look twice, and we do not judge. Those are the rules of a true cosmopolitan city. And so I noted and walked on.
As I walked, I watched myself. Day after day. And each day, as the weather grew hotter, I shed layers. Gone was the jacket, I grabbed a light raincoat. Sunnier the next day, a half jacket in cotton. And then, even hotter. We were all in T-shirts. By now, in London, I would have transitioned to dresses. And yet I, picked up my scarf again. And as I did, I wondered why I seemed to need it so? When I was in Oxford circus, or in Kensington, or even in Hyde Park, the scarf went into my bag. But here, where there were coffee shops with men sitting outside in the morning, and some women by mid morning; where housewives in scarves scurried to the local market, their shopping trollies dragged along — this community that was watching its own — compelled me to keep my scarf on. Without a word uttered. With no eye contact with the women at all. But with the male gaze from outside the coffee shop that was probably just looking out for business — I felt the pressure. I kept my scarf on.
And wondered. Was this free choice?
Oh, I kept my hair open, unbound, loose.