An excise commissioner from the Indian state of Kerala attracted much derision when he recently stated that a man staring longer than 14 seconds at a woman could get jailed. While no such law exists in India — in fact, such a law would be difficult to implement anywhere in the world — the statement does highlight a widespread phenomenon that millions of women in India and Pakistan have to deal with on a daily basis.
One of the major cultural tragedies of South Asia is that women have been objectified for ages. This is not to say that objectification of women does not exist in other cultures, but given the patriarchal nature of our societies and even laws, objectification of women here is more accentuated. Here, women have been viewed as statues to be bejeweled and flaunted at weddings, as robots to prepare timely meals in the kitchen, as people pleasers at the homes of their in-laws, and as objects to be stared down and examined with a judging eye. This ‘tradition’ of men staring at women continues to be passed down from one generation to the next. Whether the male is from Pakistan, where religious morals include lowering one’s gaze in modesty, or from India, which also derives a culture from similar teachings in modesty, makes no difference. Staring at women shows the male-dominated nature of our societies and the lowly status accorded to women, something that is further highlighted by the ease with which crimes can be committed against them. Whether it is the large number of cases of female rape in India or Pakistan’s epidemic of ‘honour’ crimes, the status of women in our countries is there for all to see. The Indian official’s statement should not be dismissed with mere amusement. While enacting laws against staring may not be possible, what is needed is a change in mindsets and the way moral values are imparted in South Asia. That may be the only way to curb the staring culture.