Rishiraj Singh is the excise commissioner in the Indian state of Kerala. In the most recent photograph of him that I could find, he sports the khaki uniform of his position and a formidable moustache. In the last half of August, however, Rishiraj Singh has become known for something else, an edict against men who stare at women.
While addressing a small group of people in the city of Kochi on women’s safety, Singh declared that any man found staring at a woman for more than 14 seconds could be put in jail. Since India is a country of men who like to stare, his statement provoked immediate attention and ire; the Indian newspaper India Express labelled the statement ‘absurd’ and included an interview with a lawyer who said that there was no such law.
Others largely took the same tone: how dare Indian men be threatened with imprisonment for staring at Indian women. In the words of one Indian attorney: “There is no such provision in any law of this country and there cannot be such a mindless provision of law in any other country of the world. Period.” The message to women, Indian and otherwise: it’s a man’s world and staring at women must necessarily be a part of it.
Men stare and stare and stare — old men and young men; bearded men and clean-shaven men; the supposedly religious and the avowedly secular. Staring at women is indeed the glue that binds.
Pakistan is also a country of staring men. Any Pakistani woman, young or old, rich or poor, has her staring stories — tales of men who stare at women in buses, at school, restaurants, banks, work and in parks. All of them will tell you that there is no corner of Pakistan that is not populated by men who stare.
Learning to put up with staring is possibly the first line in the book of male dominance that is the contemporary Pakistani story. Men stare and stare and stare — old men and young men; bearded men and clean-shaven men; the supposedly religious and the avowedly secular. Staring at women is indeed the glue that binds the male species of the subcontinent together. They may disagree on politics, be at each other’s throats over religion, stab and shoot at the provocations of sectarianism or the particulars of ethnicity, but they all believe in staring, everywhere and always.
All of these reasons make the statement by the excise commissioner interesting and almost revolutionary. The male of the South Asian species does not generally like to admit his proclivities for visual excess and optic dominance, let alone abridge them. If and when men are confronted about staring, they deny they have partaken of such activity.
Indeed, perhaps because it is so prevalent, engaged in with such zest and regularity, it is possible that the men who do it, like addicts of other kinds, believe their own lies. I never stare, have never stared, will never stare, all rolling off their tongues with the ease granted by practice. And all the while staring continues unabated and everywhere.
In the odd and unlikely case that staring is even admitted to, the perpetrator moves from denial to the shifting of blame, staring pinned on the wayward women, who by their very existence, their insistence on going to work or school or riding a bus or travelling in a car, or paying a bill or buying vegetables, conspire to wheedle men into staring. It is an old trick and all men, young and old, can perform it with the prowess of Olympic athletes.
Interestingly, males of the human species are not alone in the act of staring. Experts point out that prolonged staring among other living creatures signals a challenge and an act of domination. If one among this variety stares at an opponent for more than 14 seconds, it would be because he wants to make a clear statement about who is boss: the starer and not the stared at.
Beyond animal science, feminist social theorists and philosophers have long pointed out how the ‘male gaze’ serves to intimidate and discipline women. It’s not a revolutionary thesis; its implications in the Pakistani context and in many other parts of the Muslim world have meant a very literal disciplining, shoving women out of the public sphere into the private one, its crude and pathetic logic insisting that if there are no women to stare at, men will not stare.
For all of these reasons, it is not absurd but quite groundbreaking to suggest a law that would punish men for staring at women for longer than 14 seconds. If the men who indulge in it want to understand just how insulting, intrusive and lecherous it is to maintain a largely unwanted eye contact for this period, I suggest they all request another man to stare at them for just that period.
Many revelations are in store for them if and when they do, chief among them how insulting, intrusive and repulsive staring is for the subject of the constant gaze. At the end, they can spare a moment to consider the exponential rate at which these repugnant consequences are multiplied when the arrangement is not an experiment, and the one staring not a friend or colleague.
One is not sure how many men would want to partake of the experiment. After all, who wants to experience something disgusting; the wealthy never wish to pretend to be poor, the powerful never play at being powerless and so why should those who are smug about their staring habits, ever attempt to understand just how coercive and unpleasant this action is for the other half of the population.
Among men of this sort, the commissioner from Kerala is a venerable and hopeful exception, one man who realises that for staring to stop, it must be fined and punished, exposed as perverse and disgusting; it might be okay in the animal kingdom but certainly not for the human species.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2016