Imagine how an animal lacking in aggression behaves in a jungle infested with powerful but unpredictable predators. It constantly emits awkward signals of being aware that it is stalked at its every step by frightening shadows, visible and not so visible. Its antennas, natural and acquired, are taut with an uneasy effort to hastily decipher what it receives from the ambiguously hostile forces encircling it. What may save the animal is its uncanny ability to steer through by expressing innocuous responses that while being aware of the lurking dangers, it poses no threat to those that may pounce on it. Its survival instinct in the face of existential threat brings a sea change in its natural/normal behaviour, transforming its entire physiognomy.

Now imagine our urban woman in a public space, be it a bazaar, a street, a road or a public square. Is she any different from the non-aggressive animal in a jungle, likely to be taken advantage of or mauled by predators? The only visible difference is that in the present case the predators are men, civilised and not so civilised. Men, most of them, to be exact, at subconscious level take the woman at a public place unashamedly as a lascivious commodity and a shareable sexual object.

Men’s behaviour is strangely paradoxical in the sense that it betrays a stark contrast in their attitudes towards the women of their ‘own’ and the women of ‘others’. In the former case the woman ‘belongs to the family’ headed by a male, the patriarch while in the latter case, woman, surely belonging to some family, is considered to be an asset with invisible tag ‘an ownerless belonging’, waiting to be appropriated by any and every male. In either case woman is considered a commodity, an object owned individually or collectively by men in a culture of male chauvinism.

Housewives in Punjab’s urban centres, pigeonholed and totally fed up with their humdrum existence, love to go out to enliven their sense of being a part of social and public life. Working women though small in number go to their workplaces and offices. To be in a public place is a liberating as well as a constricting experience for women. Sense of being in the midst of social life is liberating for them but the effort to be what they are is extremely constricting. It’s like walking through a hostile camp that may land them in the lap of the unexpected with the unforeseen consequences.

Just look at a woman how she walks in a bazaar or any other public place. She is acutely self conscious and tries to make her body, her physical being as inconspicuous as possible as it may prove her bane which otherwise is considered a boon. Her physical being undergoes an uneasy transformation forced by external factors beyond her control. She doesn’t walk straight with her erect figure as is the case with a normal human being. She is leered at by men who look at her body up and down making her lose her gait. The indecent lens of the lecherous eyes focused on her reduces her into shriveled flesh or an amorphous mass. An innuendo hurled at her from a distance floors her groveling for an invisible prop. Gestures and words intruding into her personal space force her to change her body language which is a natural response in unnatural conditions. She walks either too fast or too slow in a defensive posture. Being vulnerable she tries to be as unnoticeable as possible with the result that she appears smaller than her natural height. She constantly fiddles with her clothes as if what she is wearing is not enough to cover her body parts. She painfully tries to conceal what, she thinks, may reveal her as a woman that she is. She is quite the opposite of what Heer had been, in the words of Waris Shah ‘a mulcting soldier in the Bazaar’.

In the male’s perspective women are women but they live in our class society which is hyper conscious of age-old hierarchy. So women of different classes behave differently in the public places. The working class woman does not afford the luxury of spending her day in the protective ring of the family. She has to go out to eke out her living. She usually offers her services to rich households or to do other menial jobs to support her family. The rough and tough jobs, she must do, puts her at times in unenviable situations. But at the same time it gives her a measure of empowerment and physically and psychologically makes her stronger to deal with nasty men she may encounter in a household or at a public place. Her body language while betraying signs of docility remains firm. She can shout if ogled at or can grab the attacker by the throat if molested. She knows she has to defend herself in the absence of family muscle.

Urban middle-class woman, if not working, appears to be shaky, unsure of herself and more vulnerable when exposed to the nitty-gritty of public life. Fed on the middle-class values of modesty and segregation, she turns out to be sorts of prude. Her upbringing incapacitates her physically and psychologically with the result that she is unable to handle the discrete and indiscreet male aggressiveness that she may face while in public. Sensing a threat of imminent danger, imagined and real, her body language becomes clumsy which invites increased male attention that makes it even clumsier. The fault lies not with her but with the family whose morality makes her an easy prey. And easy prey always attracts the hounds that hunt.

Upper-class woman by definition is on the upper rung of social ladder. As a member of elite she has an aura of power that usually keeps her ensconced in a protective ring that scares away the hoi polloi. Self-confidence born of surfeit of riches is her shield. Symbols of power such as her expensive vehicle, her chauffer, designer dress etc give her an air of invulnerability which may not be as real as it seems. A powerful woman like Benazir Bhutto had to always take care of what she wore or how she conducted herself in public.

Women, regardless of class, are forced by a disease called male not be what they actually are. They for their survival have to be what men insist they ought to be. Without changing the socio-economic conditions laced with the cultural ethos of male superiority, we will not see the real face of woman; the woman who is not just a woman but a human being with a huge untapped potential, which if realised, could make our world richer and far more diverse. — soofi01@hotmail.com

(To be continued)

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2014