We have all heard of the male gaze, and some of us have heard of the contested female gaze where “the gaze” refers to the way images are created with a male (or female) subject in mind.
I have been thinking about what “the gaze” might mean when the subject is Muslim.
All this began when I read that two Muslim women were forced off a plane for “staring at a flight attendant.” These women were escorted off by police, in front of all of the other passengers on the plane. I can only imagine the humiliation this caused.
But this time was different. This time, the crime was staring. I kept coming back to that fact, in part because I kept thinking about staring, and what counts as staring. In general, I make it a point to avoid eye contact with people because it makes me uncomfortable. A certain degree of awkwardness is typically guaranteed. For example, we all know the way people avoid each other’s eyes on public transportation.
Except sometimes they don’t. Last week, riding the bus to my early morning class, a woman across from me was unapologetically staring at me. When I felt her eyes on me, I looked up to confirm that I did not imagine the shift in the air. I wear the hijab, and I forget sometimes that some people would rather I not wear it, would prefer I would not wear my identity wrapped around my head.
I texted my friend about this staring woman. She texted back almost immediately, telling me to stare right back. I felt as though I couldn’t. It would seem to make sense. If she felt no shame in glaring at me, I should have every right to look right back. Yet, staring in this moment felt like it was not a right that belonged to me. She could stare as much as she wanted, but I did not feel like I could do the same.
I wouldn’t want to be thrown off a bus for staring.
These two women forced off the plane were essentially punished for keeping their eyes open, or for eye contact that was, according to the flight attendant, sustained too long.
The gaze, in Laura Mulvey’s original conception of the term, cannot be separated from power dynamics. In her use of the term the male gaze, she reminds us of the ways the visual arts have functioned in the service of male desire. The male subject is always the one with the power to gaze upon the female object.
The person wielding the gaze is the one within the power.
In this case, the women accused of staring were deemed a threat. Their gaze was a threat.
But it was the flight attendant who had the actual power in this situation. It is the crew of the plane that can determine which bodies are deemed hazardous for the overall safety of the journey. Even after passing intensive, already Islamophobic and racist airport security screening, this flight attendant felt that these women were still a threat. For staring, or what the attendant perceived as staring.
The last time I went to the airport to cross the Canadian/United States border, the guard asked me to “drop it please,” pointing to my scarf. I asked him what he meant by dropping it. He clearly felt uncomfortable and clarified he wanted me to lower my hijab so he could see my hairline. I did not want to, but I felt as if I had no choice in the matter. Many times, we do not. Our personal freedoms, as people of colour who are racialized as Muslim or perceived to be Muslim, are negligible in the name of security, or under the guise of collective safety. What his glance at my hairline told him about my being non-threatening, I will never know.
As I am told time and time again, it is just protocol. Until it’s not.