Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A retraction

About two years ago, I had said some things about provocation (in a post titled ' Provocation', which then led to some very provoked comments).

I go back to it now because I have rethought the sexes, gender, bodies, public space, and also because, I was asked to think of 'crossing lines'. When it comes to clothes - attitudes, lifestyles, whatever - what amounts to a line crossed?

With reference to clothes specifically, back then, I had said that bodies - male or female - attract attention, and often admiration. To quote myself, "We do not like the way this admiration is expressed. But that is something we have no control over. There will be whistling, song-singing, comment-passing, the works...And yes, I don't think we have a right to stop this expression of admiration."

Two years later, I apologize. I no longer believe that. I especially retract 'the works' and that last sentence.

I believe (I think) that there is only so much we can do to control other people's reactions but we can try to change the reactions, the public space, and the attitudes that lead to unpleasant reactions. And we have every right to seek such a change, albeit as non-violently as possible.

At this point of time, I no longer believe in any fixed rules with reference to women's bodies and men's reactions. There was a time when I was conditioned into thinking that the responsibility (and fault?) for these reactions lay with a woman. I no longer think so.

I continue to have very mixed views about what exactly harassment is and whether irritants like comment-passing, whistling, song-singing, staring should be classified in the same bracket as pinching, grabbing or otherwise touching without permission.

I am aware that most of the time it is not worth my while to react violently to any of the former and that I will invariably react with a spontaenous burst of violence to the latter. However, if I was fifteen, and being followed by a man who kept passing comments that seemed threatening or intended to humiliate, I'd feel differently. I now recognize that language (singing, commenting etc is part of a public, gendered language) is a tool of aggression and dominance, a tool of power play. If somebody calls your mother a whore, and you beat him up, most people would understand perfectly and stand up for you. If some random man on the street calls you a whore, and you feel insulted by it, and beat him up, I would understand perfectly (even if I don't think that there's anything wrong with whores).

I still don't wear certain clothes in public. And I recognize that this is not always because I respect other people's sensibilities but because I am afraid of them. Afraid of what they will do to me. I do not wear spagetti-strapped tops to the local market or a backless dress in a rickshaw, not because I'm concerned about how I'm affecting the men out there, but because I'm afraid that if some blighted idiot decides to insult me or touch me without my permission, I will find myself isolated, and humiliated even further by the idea that the fault was mine.

I stand by what I said about us wanting to attract admiration, and wanting it only from certain men/women and not from others, and that class and race are huge factors here. But I retract what I said about being prepared for the impact our bodies have upon these 'others'.

I think that men have a right to 'look' if we happen to be in their line of vision. But they do not have a right to assume that a woman is available (even if she is stark naked), or open to insults, or that she will appreciate their admiration and attention. Unwelcome attention will simply provoke defensive-aggressive behaviour. And every woman has the right to define her own boundaries of (un)acceptable behaviour, and to defend those boundaries as she sees fit.

Apologies to the sisters I offended by my opinions earlier. I stand corrected, and wiser.


Shruti said...

Hi dear,
First time to your blog....
I agree to you point but what if women is in full cloths and then she got a comment or something...
It wholly not depends upon our dress that provoke mens to comment or insult us there are many other factors too..
Take care...

D said...

Hi Annie, as a first time visitor to your blog, I'm impressed by your honesty. But not in the least surprised by how you were conditioned to think that the fault must lie with the woman. Which is why making women aware of their rights is so, so important. If they don't recognise as wrong that which is happening with them, nobody can be expected to speak on their behalf.

Annie Zaidi said...

shruti: that's approximately what i'm trying to say too.
me: it feels strange addressing you as me. nevertheless,thanks. though i have to say that it takes somebody to trigger the process of deconditioning. somebody has to start speaking on all our behalves.

Jai_Choorakkot said...


The max disagreement is with 'staring' that you have on your list. My wife and I were subjected to just this as we passed thru a slummy area last week. She was absolutely covered up but maybe out of place maybe for that environ.

We felt the probing gaze, the objectification, and the urge it forced on us to exit that area quickly.

But I dont think we had a right to get somebody arrested, or fight them. Maybe I could have had a verbal tangle, and lost with even more injury to my self-esteem.


Arry Potter said...

Clothed women are looked way different from ones without. True to wat you are saying

can you add me to your list

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