Lowered Gaze

Ash looked the length of the changing room, savouring the full and unrestricted view of plastic covered locker doors. The numbers were crisp, hand painted, the artist’s attention to detail highlighted by every minor scratch.

A bell rang. He sighed, packed his swimming gear and searched for the glasses that were still too new to be part of his familiar routine. He put them on and the wall became a blur. Time for class.

At his feet he sought out the painted blue line that would lead him back to assembly. From there he would find a green line to ethics, and finally he would walk to each door in turn until he found room 31. The large letters helped and were legible from as far away as five paces.

Older boys shoved past him, moving from sharp focus to indistinct haze in seconds. With age came practice and familiarity: they now navigated the school’s halls on memory and an almost supernatural sense of direction. He envied their speed.

He consoled himself that he would be like them some day. To wear the glasses was the first step in becoming a man, and he still felt his parents’ pride from when he first tried them on.

His eyes were now drawn to the window. A feeling of brightness. Handle painted shut. Smudged fingerprints that would soon be cleaned. Beyond it, the blur. From memory there was a running track and he strained to hear panting, the shouts of encouragement, the whistle of a teacher. Nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t in use until later. He turned his eyes back to the rainbow-lined floor and called to mind the directions to the classroom.

Ash entered the back of the room and stepped past the vacant girls’ seats, following the edges of the desks and chairs until he found the male section. He had dawdled; identifying a free seat took time. As he sat the teacher stepped forward, her outline too tall to be mistaken for that of a student. She passed in front of the blackboard and he made out the plain blue of her dress.

“I look before me and I see the men of the future. This is the start of your true education.”

Ash smiled to the boys on his left and right. They were strangers yet. Out of habit he turned to scan the room for friends from primary school. The teacher chuckled as he realised his mistake. She forgave the interruption.

“It was our people that gave birth to the science of optics. We were the first to discover that the adjustment of light through a convex or concave lens could change how we saw the world around us. It was a discovery that drew the far near, and that made the infitesimally small fill the room. And while some said that the discoveries might go against the tenants of our faith, we found in a short while that lenses could be manipulated to increase the piety of our men. For hundreds of years we knew that men were called to be modest, to restrain their baser desires, and, most importantly, that they should lower their gaze in the presence of women.

But why rest upon the weakness of human restraint when we had been given such a technical advancement?

With a simple adjustment of the corrective lens we found for men a tool to aid their piety. With refinement we found that a balance of about ten feet was sufficient to allow productive work, routine travel, study, social interaction, and prayers. The gaze beyond this point has been lowered, decreasing in quality to prevent distractions that might call men like you from what is permitted.”

With that the class were invited to open their Qur’ans. They turned to Surah An-Nur, known to the English speakers as The Light, inspiration behind so many discussions of optics. Ash was invited to read from verse 30.

The pages were bright with colour, reproductions of a past master calligrapher. He paused to appreciate the beauty woven through the written word before reading from the English translation.

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and protect their private parts. This is more purer for them. Indeed Allah is well aware of what they do.”

Despite the beauty he found in the words an unguarded thought wondered why women faced no similar restriction.