There is a fabric and haberdashery shop quite near to where I work that is owned and run by an Iraqi family. I stopped by for the first time on my way to work one morning and was astonished to find that it was staffed almost entirely by men. This is an unusual occurrence in Australia where fabric and craft stores are almost exclusively the domain of women.
Discussing dress fabrics with a man is something I am happy to get used to but what I found most disconcerting about the shop was that the men all stared at me ceaselessly for the duration of my visit. It was uncomfortable and made me uneasy. I left the shop as soon as I could.
In our culture staring at people is a deliberate and provocative act. It is not polite and we actively discourage it in our children. Suddenly the wearing of a burka as a lifestyle choice started to make sense. I started to wonder which came first the staring or the covering? Did one beget the other?
A few weeks later I flew to India for the first time and found myself stared at from every quarter, by every man, of every persuasion. I am 46 years old and was not under any illusion that there was a sexual component to this scrutiny. At 20 I had my fair share of attention and even though I do my best, these days the odd appreciative glance from a lonely middle aged man is about as good as it gets. I also have an Indian component to my mongrel genes so knew that it wasn’t the unusual; the sight of blue eyes or blonde hair that was drawing their gaze.
In our culture, staring, whether sexual in nature or not, is usually an aggressive act with many a violent brawl beginning with the words “What are you looking at?” Australian men only stare overtly at women in certain circumstances; at the beach, where there is an unspoken permission; on building sites or with a group of mates where there is safety in numbers and when alcohol has loosened their inhibitions.
But here in India I felt it was important that I come to terms with staring as a cultural norm and not make it mean what it meant at home – otherwise I would have to remain hidden in my hotel room.
Indian women do not stare. Mostly they are far too busy, cleaning, cooking, carrying rocks, mending the roads. Indian women when you meet them in the street drop their gaze and draw their saris across their faces like a veil. Our guide told us not to take it amiss. “It is not that they don’t want you to look at them.” He said. “They are simply being polite.” I knew I was not the first to wonder (in a very western way) why the burden of polite behaviour should fall upon the women being looked at and not the men who were perpetrating the impolite behaviour but this was not the place for such a discussion.
Near the end of our trip, somewhere close to the dust of the Pakistan border, our bus stopped for petrol. We waited in our air-conditioned bubble, idly gazing past each other through the windows. At the next bowser a small flat bed truck was refueling, half a dozen turbaned men reclining on the back. One of the men with faded blue cloth swathed around his head and face, turned to look at us and caught my gaze. Only his eyes were visible but I could hang a hundred Arabian fantasies on that image. In that second I decided to hold him there, to challenge that stare and take something from it.
I had nothing to lose, given the safety of my position – locked behind glass and sitting next to my husband, but I felt such exhilaration at that exchange and a sudden physical blow when the 70 year-old Canadian woman in the next seat pushed in front of me squealing,
“Oh look at him! I must get a photo.”
Then our vehicles both began to move in opposite directions, taking him to what ever life I wished to imagine for him and taking me back to the train, a city, an airport, then home.
I needed a breath to compose myself. I wondered what he had made of the moment, what he had meant by it, what he had felt. I thought of those cultures who believe that having your photo taken can steal your soul – they are wrong. The Canadian woman took his picture and it meant nothing but I looked into his eyes and saw something alien, something recognizable, something challenging, something amusing and it meant everything. And I wanted to tell them all, this country of staring men, to guard themselves more carefully because this, this is how you lose your soul.