In the eastern Pacific Ocean, female squid pretend they have testes to put aggressive male squid off. I’ve been thinking about doing this myself for years.
Women learn very early in life that public space belongs to men, especially those spaces that facilitate public transportation. In these, the most public of spaces, there is no reliable way they can safely predict what the demographic composition of the bus, train or subway they use to commute will be that day. This is not the inside of a bazaar where the vendors are familiar, or the mall where women can expect not to be jostled. Public transportation is a hurly burly of faceless, scurrying people, rushing forward and back, intent on their destination, some pausing momentarily to say something sexual to women, or to try and touch unguarded women’s breasts.
But we women couldn’t let that put us off from going to work, college, to vote, or to stand in a queue for our money. Instead we adapt, though always alert to the possibility of verbal or physical molestation. Through personal and shared experience, we employ a range of strategies. Hopefully this memo about how to talk to women wearing headphones (save yourself a click, the gist of that piece is: don’t!) is trickling down, but headphones are a first-level shielding tactic.
Women also constantly scan areas for huddles of men, dark spaces, areas out of range from closed-circuit television cameras, and instinctively profile the oncoming anonymous person too. We compact ourselves to deflect attention, creating the public-transport hunch, shoulders rounded, back tensed, umbrellas, bags, elbows positioned to avoid or deflect contact – a one woman phalanx.
At some level there is a resignation about this amongst women.
“As long as men are put next to women, this harassment will happen,” writes Saadat Hasan Manto, one of South Asia’s greatest writers, in an essay on the harassment of women, translated from Urdu by columnist Aakar Patel.
Being on guard becomes so normative that women immediately notice even the smallest shift in levels of harassment. A change in environment is the most obvious. Indian women talk about travelling to less restrictive environments within the country and abroad and the sea change it brings about in what they wear, how they behave and the involuntary easing up of what they refer to as the “resting bitch face”.
But there are other instances when women may notice that there is less harassment, less targeting. There are ages and stages in a woman’s life when the harassment peaks. It has almost nothing to do with the simplistic rules of sartorial modesty and the disciplinary male gaze, but how women perceived by the lumpen patriarchy.
In his essay, Manto wrote that he asked men: “What particular type of girl or woman do you target?”
One replied saying: “When I see a fatty, I always wink at her…Fat girls are in any case shy and self-conscious. When they flare up in embarrassment at my actions, a surge of pleasure goes through me.”
Another said: “Those who cannot or do not protest, who keep their anger silent. It is impossible to describe the joy in engaging with them.”
Women who are perceived as less confident – younger, cowering, distracted, unsure – are targeted more often.
But when are women targeted less?
Times have changed because despite what Manto’s interviewees said, a lot of women report that when they were heavier they were left alone a lot more. But as they lost weight, they felt the rise in attention on the street so alarming that, in some cases, it reduced their motivation to continue with the fitness regimes they had started. I’d persevere though. Physical strength and muscle tone does result in a more confident posture, which usually creates some restraint in the public-transport pervert.
In 2007, a small cross-cultural study about performing gender in postures showed that teenagers were already aware of the difference between the way men and women sit, stand and occupy space. So it is worth exploring if posturing as more masculine in general will result in a less eventful commute for women.
Mimicking the way men use space, rather than accommodating for their usurping of it, helps. While women wait for the effects of campaigns like those against manspreading – the term used to define the tendency of men to sit with their legs wide apart in public transport, thus occupying more than one seat – to manifest, we can stake our claim to space in several ways.
Stand in a comfortable stance with your legs slightly apart, do not cede your space, stake your claim to a shared armrest, use your bag or other belongings like books to take up more physical space than you require.
Once, in a movie theatre, a man next to me sat in such a way that his knee was protruding into my designated area. I recoiled at first, but then crossed my legs like a man (ankle on knee) so the sole of my shoe touched his knee. It took two tries but he eventually managed to contain himself within the space he had paid for.
Anecdotally, in India, short hair often means that women get less attention from the general public. That can perhaps be attributed to the mass appeal of the beauty standards popularised by Bollywood. But a casual Google search of women’s experiences after they cut their hair will show that while Indian men usually do not like short hair, the idea that short-haired women are somewhat desexualised by the random observer is quite universal.
I’m wary of suggesting any wardrobe element because we can too easily get into the realm of enforced sartorial modesty, but secure shoes are also a great aid to a strong gait and good balance.
I have also found that wearing men’s fragrances worked well on the street and in male-dominated spaces like government offices. When I did this, I was accorded with marginally more respect. There isn’t any research to back up my experience, but as the majority of the replies on this Reddit thread on the website askmen.com indicates, smelling strongly of men’s perfume may set off some conditioned sensory response or will just plain confuse ’em. It’s effective and a lot easier than pretending to have testes.