“She did it again! How does she get up there?” my uncle’s wife looked perplexed yet slightly amused as I walked by, towel thrown over my shoulder, and made my way to the grand hall sofa. My father looked stern as he took in my color of my skin. What two days ago had been a warm cream, was now a dark mocha from the intense Indian sun. In an effort to keep me from the rooftop my uncle had placed layers of furniture along the last staircase landing, but I was adept at climbing and grasping the high railing I managed my way around the matrix of chairs and tables.
It was always a tense and irrational conversation that followed these excursions to the rooftop. “Who is going to see your skin? Why are you stubborn and set to bring shame to us? What if someone saw you?” “I do it for myself, I think I look prettier when I’m tan. Everyone in America is tan. Besides, I blend in here now.” I replied, avoiding his intense and disapproving gaze. It always boggled my mind how in a land where the majority of people were born with varying shades of caramel skin they could hate it so much.
Throughout my childhood I would overhear various family members discuss the merits of certain girls, “She’s pretty, but she’s dark.” So many of my own cousins owned and diligently used ‘Fair & Lovely’ a bleaching cream widely used throughout India. Their marriageability ranked on their skin tone, often outweighing their education, career, and personalities. I was born to parents whose pigmentation favored that of toasted cashews and so I became a rarity in a sea of caramel, a rare jewel in the South of India. It was a curse.
From even as early as twelve years of age elder women would hound my grandaunts and parents to arrange a marriage between me and their son, nephew, whoever. All of this solely based on the color of my skin, regardless of how perverted their requests sounded to my whole family. Dressed in rich and vibrant blouses with ornate skirts, I often looked older than my age at weddings, which only added to these outrageous overtures. Back then, it hadn’t bothered my parents as much as it bothered me, but they grew concerned as I grew older. I had studied my mother’s photographs from her youth and by 18 perfected the cat eye, pairing that against my cream skin and distinct beauty mark made me stand out from the crowd of girls whose mothers caked them in talc powder and magenta lipstick.
It wasn’t so much at weddings that my father began to resent my looks, but during the regular day trips in the city. Sitting in the back of our family car, my Disk-man on full blast I would gaze out the window, the passing traffic that weaved around those crowded Indian roads full of men on motorcycles. My dark hair whipping around my face as we drove to local sari boutiques. And then inevitably, one of those motorcyclists would notice me and just as suddenly they would take every turn that our driver did until finally parking in the market.
I tried not to notice them, averting my gaze as I stepped out of the car, often dressed in long shirt salwars that didn’t follow the trends of India, but rather my own style of minimalism and clean cuts. Hours would pass as we purchased items in the top stories of these markets, often leaving past midnight after collaborations with the tailors, and yet I could still see at least one or two of those men perched on their motorcycles lying in wait.
Often, as I got into the car a little street child would run by the car and drop a note into my lap, the number for my stalker neatly written with some insulting comment about my beauty. It was upon such occurrences that my father would notice the men again following us, and angrily turn to me in the backseat, chastising me as he demanded I roll up my window and stay out of site. This happened often enough that on the rare occasions when I was left at home my father would have my uncle lock our front gate and post a guard. I often resented my time in India as it tainted my relationship with my family, each one thinking of ways that I was a risk and how to keep me in or cover me from head to toe when I did step out. ‘How did no one else get harassed the way I did?’they often wondered only to suspect that I must be initiating the stalking.
Instead of thinking that something should be done to alter the male gaze, the blame was placed on me, on the cream tone of my skin, on my naivety of a culture I did not understand. On the rare occasions that I would shout out at the men to leave me alone I was chastised, often left feeling ashamed for something far beyond my control. I never understood why those men weren’t on the receiving end of my father’s anger. As much as I resented feeling like a caged bird, I took comfort in the feeling of security at home that I didn’t have when I traversed the city. It wasn’t until I began my trips to the rooftop that I found a way to stop or at least minimize the stalking. I became less of that rare jewel and became just another Indian woman driving around with her family.
It took many years after these trips to have an open dialogue with my parents, my father in particular who was often uncomfortable when confronted with such topics, but it was necessary for me. His intention was always to protect me, but never understood that in shaming me he was only reinforcing the mentality that anything I had experience was my fault and not that of the men who violated my sense of safety. We have all changed in many ways over the years, but my family no longer allows for blame being placed on anyone other than the perpetrator. I am no longer shamed for taking pride in how I present myself in the world.
Now there are so many shows that we watch from the comfort of our couch in America about the way women are objectified and harassed, often ending in far more dire experiences than my own. Using these shows as a platform for change in a society that up until recent years has rarely held men accountable, now exposes those for who and what they are, perverted individuals in a society that is ready for change.
Gone are the days where shaming women for the inappropriate male gaze is common practice, we are now in a time when men are being forced to change or else deal with the harsh consequences of the law. I’d like to think that conversations like the ones I had with my family over the years happened among other families leading to this movement, and that the volume of these voices is what is drowning out an outdated and foolhardy point of view.
(Maliha’s story was published as part of Sharing not Shaming campaign by SAFIGI Outreach Foundation Ltd, a not for profit organization based in Zambia with a vision to raise a generation where girls are empowered, equipped and fulfilled in every aspect of their life, for the development of the entire world. To know more about SAFIGI’s goals and activities, visit http://www.safetyfirstforgirls.org)