Last week, Kerala excise commissioner Rishiraj Singh made a statement that baffled us all. He said that there exists a legitimate, little known law that says men could be sent to jail if they were to stare at a woman for more than 14 seconds. He was addressing a group of school students at an event on women’s safety. Needless to say, the great people of Twitter had a field day. My phone was beeping constantly because of the flood of Malayalam Whatsapp forwards mocking his claims.

While some of questions raised by people were obviously valid, some were cringe-worthy. There were questions about the arbitrary number 14 and the impracticality of keeping a check on thousands of men on the streets everyday. Then there were the ‘men will be men’ jokes along the lines of – what if we wear sunglasses? What if we use binoculars? Can we stare for 13 seconds look away and stare for another 13?  All I could think of while reading them were how they  were not far from the truth, how some of these men were trying to remind us that nothing can stop them from violating or harassing a woman if they set their minds to it.

It can be agreed upon that the problem is not the duration but the intention of the stare. Of course letting your eyes wander mindlessly or glancing at someone you find attractive is a normal part of stepping out in public, but there is a clear divide between what is appropriate and what isn’t. This is easy for someone experiencing it to recognize, but it isn’t always easy to articulate. Maybe that explains why the commissioner took the extreme measure of claiming the validity of a law that does not exist to drive his point across.

According to reports, 79% of Indian women have faced some form of harassment in public. Having lived in Kerala for 12 years of my life I can vouch for the fact that this problem is real and it is more here prominent than most other places I’ve been to. Sometimes a stare isn’t just a stare; it is a way of invading your personal space and establishing dominance. As Satyen K Bordoloi puts it in his article, ‘men who don’t stare, don’t plan attacks’, because it is often a precursor to being harassed, groped or stalked. This is part of the everyday struggle of Indian women inhabiting public spaces. If it is a phenomenon that generates so much fear in the minds of half our population, why do we find it funny? Why do we feel the need to trivialize it instead of addressing the actual issue at hand?

In the midst of the uproar, a Malayali woman posted her opinion on Facebook stating she sometimes finds it flattering when men stare at her and that it was normal for both men and women to do so. This was met with a downpour of sexual abuses online which included asking her how much they would have to pay to sleep with her. The culture of threatening sexual violence in the online space, when a woman raises an opinion or speaks her mind is not uncommon for Kerala men. Read: What the internet gave the Kerala man (apart from porn)

In a society where patriarchy runs in its veins, doesn’t it become all the more important to talk about safe spaces for women?

Honestly, in a political system that is quick to blame the victim, isn’t this one of less ridiculous things an Indian official has said about safe spaces for women?

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