Women in India have been at the receiving end of the male gaze – that discomfiting, lustful expression that leaves women feeling queasy, uncomfortable and unhinged. Ahead of Women’s Day this year, Vitamin Stree released a powerful video addressing the pervasive ritual of cat-calls unapologetically perpetrated by men.
Cat-calling – the downright objectification of women (“ay item”), the disconcerting “wolf whistles” and the sexual overtures (“Madam, humein bhi try kalo/Madam, try me as well”) – is the classic modus operandi for harassment. As women, we are told to ignore them. We are told to turn and silently walk away. We are told to not respond for the fear of the situation escalating. Cat-calling is so deeply entrenched in our society that we’ve now become immune to its presence. In fact, in the video’s monologue, the narrator admits, “Wolf whistles no longer pierce my calm. My ears don’t tingle and my cheeks don’t burn.”
If women get verbally harassed, ‘accidentally’ felt up or sexually assaulted, it’s not the perpetrator who is at fault, but the woman and her choice of clothes. The staple, “What were you wearing?” question is hurled at the woman every time. Occasionally however, when an assault is too brutal and ruthless, people come out on the streets and protest. But the video takes a dig at the laconic nature of public outrage as well: “Collective outrage unites us like nothing else” but “outrage wears thin with age”. This outrage brings the country together, but only momentarily. Eventually, everybody forgets about the incident and the country spirals back into complacency.
Here’s the whole poem by Gaya:
I’ve been wearing men’s gazes
for so long now
that mere wolf whistles
no longer pierce my calm.
My ears dont tingle
and my cheeks dont burn
in fact I don’t even have the urge
to turn and say,
when one of them shouts
how he would like to
I do admit,
that sometimes skin on skin,
the brush of thigh or hip or tit,
because I’ve grown so numb
to fingers on my body
my lover calls me frigid.
I laugh them off,
these stray hands at taxi stands and
“accidental” jolts in buses and trains
that make for a very good story
which I tell well
especially since collective outrage
unites us like nothing else;
even though I am not outraged
because outrage wears thin with age
and mine disintegrated years ago
There’s always someone though,
but what were you wearing?
The same thing, I want to answer,
that I have worn for so long now,
it has become my skin