Trigger Warning: mentions of sexual assault and rape-anxiety.
I went to Liberty, Lahore one evening. I ambled through the narrow alleys lined with tiny shops, occasionally poking my head into a few. I kept walking until a hand brushed my back and I flinched. I turned around and found an old man standing right behind me. I threw him a hostile stare. In return, his lips curled into an unapologetic, lopsided smile. Something about his demeanor told me that I wasn’t the first woman he fondled. I sighed with disgust. But deep down, I felt afraid of him.
If the male gaze fell on me, I was told it was my fault.
I’m given these subtle reminders of my existence every single day. It almost feels as if these men are scared that I’ll forget who I am—a woman.
Even before I fully evolved into a grown woman, I was made aware of my femaleness. My womanhood. My body. Myself. I was told that people looked when I made myself a part of the crowd. But not everyone looked the same way, not everyone had pure intentions.
My rape-anxiety has always been a looming cloud. Ever since I was a little girl, I felt conscious of possessing a female body—and the burden of protecting it. If the male gaze fell on me, I was told it was my fault. My sleeves were too short. My shirt was too tight. My lips were too dark. But my only fault was being a woman in this dangerous, unforgiving world.
I was very young when my innocence fell to pieces. I grew up too soon, both because of the men I knew and those I didn’t.
I was 8 years when I caught a shopkeeper leering at my breasts. I was 10 years old when my tennis coach molested me and let his hands graze my bare skin where they left bruises that lasted for days. I was 13 years old when two men on a bike followed me around and catcalled me. I was 15 years old when a man in a car followed me to my house. I was 16 years old when I received a message from a guy I didn’t know telling me that he knew where I lived. I was 20 years old when an elderly man rubbed himself against my body as I was working in an office.
I found it impossible over the ensuing years to forget the stalking, leering, and jeering that chiseled away at the early years of my life.
Over the years I’ve felt something deeply unsettling about the male gaze. The way it follows you. The way it lingers on your skin.
I cannot escape the impossible burden of my female body.
My illusion of invincibility crumbles when it finds me. My body heaves deep sighs of fear. My existence becomes tethered to the eyes looking at me. I’ve felt aware of the gaze that followed me when I walked through the bazaars; that devoured me when I sat on a bench in the park; that lingered on my skin when my scarf slipped off my shoulders.
My reality becomes pigmented with apprehension as soon as I become the focus of someone’s eyes because that’s where it all begins. I instantly become conscious of my body and my vulnerability. I feel naked despite several layers of clothes encasing me.
Sometimes I question if my body is even truly mine.
I’ve spent my life living in rape-anxiety. In those moments of fear, I want to be anyone but myself. I want the burden of my existence to dissolve. I want to feel free. I want to feel at ease with the world.
My anxiety is not always a paralyzing monster, sometimes it’s more subtle. I adjust my clothes as I walk on the streets, flinching at the slightest brush of a man’s hand. I stay home after dark. My blood starts to boil when I read the stories of other women around me. I never feel completely safe being who I am – being a woman.