Personal Essay

Eye in the Sky

Many gossamer-winged butterflies in the Lycaenidae family do something fascinating to escape predation. When they land on a plant, they close their wings and turn around so that their heads face down, and their hind wings face upwards. The hind wings of the butterfly have eyespots, and their elongated tails look like antennae. If a predator glanced at it, it could easily be tricked into thinking that its rear end is actually its head. A bite of this ‘false head’ of the butterfly is less of a risk than a bite of its actual head—sure death.

Butterflies and caterpillars have many such tricks up their sleeves to deceive, scare, or repulse their predators. This is far from a one-sided game that ends with the butterflies winning, though. Predators learn from experience, and are engaged in an ongoing evolutionary game with their prey. While the prey constantly experiment evolutionarily with different defences, the predators adapt to catch up.

Recently, I chanced upon the caterpillar of a Blue Tiger Moth. It was idly hanging out on a plant and chomping on a leaf, in full view of the world and its watchful, hungry eyes. It was luxuriously sprawled, with one end on a twig and the other on the leaf it was eating. As it continued to lounge out in the open, it did not seem to mind that it was vulnerable to predation. Sometimes completely still, it was as though it were lost in thought, or basking in its lack of purpose. As it moved unhurriedly, I found myself jealous of it.

The Blue Tiger Moth caterpillar was, to me, enjoying its solitude freely, and without interruptions. It wasn’t subjected to the question, ‘How will you manage alone?’ It didn’t have to juggle pleasure with chores. It didn’t have its liberties curtailed. I was jealous because despite living independently, my father still calls to check on me everyday when my husband travels. I was jealous of it because the fear of being alone in public still creeps into my conversations with other women.

In a book called Why Loiter, authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade argue that women in India often cannot access public spaces on their own terms. Instead, their movements are influenced by the risk of sexual violence, their marital status, and the expectations of appearing respectable and feminine.

I took my time reading Why Loiter (published by Penguin). I highlighted heavily, thinking back to growing up in Bangalore, and all the times I could not go out alone, had my clothes scrutinised before I left home, and had to account for what I did, where I was, and who I was with. No shorts or short skirts. Hanging out with a group of boys meant being ‘available’ (this came from my otherwise feminist mother). Staying out after seven thirty in the evening meant fielding increasingly frantic calls from my father, every half an hour. I was even chauffeured to driving classes by my grandfather.

I attributed it all to a protective family, and didn’t fully recognise the patriarchal roots of their hawk-eyed attention to my appearance and movements. I didn’t understand that public spaces were not ‘safe’ for women because patriarchy dictated that their rightful place was in the house. The authors of Why Loiter write that patriarchy only accepts women outdoors when they have a purpose—going to work, shopping, or meeting friends. Yet, being outdoors comes with the fear of being seen with the wrong kind of man, or being sexually violated and bringing disrespect to your family. This then leads to the policing and surveillance of women’s movements.

Loitering, argue the authors, is a way for women to assert their right over public spaces. To loiter is to while away time in public, or to engage in an activity, by yourself, or with people you want to be with, entirely for pleasure. And, on your own terms. To loiter is to take intentional risks in accessing public space as citizens, and not as property that needs to be protected, restricted, or monitored.

To me, the Blue Tiger Moth caterpillar was loitering. Ecology has an explanation for why the caterpillar is doing this without resorting to elaborate deceptions: it doesn’t make for a tasty snack.  

Its daring and bright colours serve as a warning to its predators—eat me at your own risk, because I’m toxic. It was well protected. So, maybe it’s not the perfect metaphor for loitering, which argues for occupying space without having to display markers of protection (such as a mangalsutra). But I was still mesmerised by it, and the space that it demanded for itself.

It’s not just the risk of accessing public spaces that women have to confront while leaving their homes. In Why Loiter, the authors discuss the mental gymnastics and ‘elaborate backstage strategising’ that women have to engage in before leaving the confines of their home: making sure their bodies, companions, the time of day, destination, and activity are acceptable to society.

The antics of the gossamer-winged butterflies to escape predation—false heads and deceptive behaviour—remind me of these mental acrobatics. My own life is littered with such examples. For the most part, this meant crafting innocuous stories of where I was and who I was with to appease my father. In these stories, pubs and concerts became bookstores. A solo trip, or a trip with a girlfriend, turned into a trip with a group of people. Any account of hanging out with a male friend had to be mutilated, cremated, and then fashioned into a sweet story with a bow on it.

These mental gymnastics may vary in different parts of the country, and for women of different classes, castes, religion and sexuality; a woman from a lower-income background, write the authors of Why Loiter, may not be welcome in urbanised spaces like malls and coffee shops. Similarly, women are increasingly coming under attack for publicly displaying markers of their religion, such as the hijab. Patriarchal traditions conjure spectres of predators that threaten to deceive, lure, and sexually predate on ‘unsuspecting’ women. And, in enforcing its patriarchal traditions, and forever casting their appraising gaze on women, Indian society becomes a predator in itself.

Like magicians who constantly adapt their tricks, defence strategies employed by butterflies and moths are shaped over time by evolution; successful defences that help evade predation persist. These range from the benign to the patently absurd. For example, in one of its growth phases, the caterpillar of the Common Mormon butterfly resembles bird droppings. In another growth phase, the caterpillar sticks out a forked, red tongue-like organ, and releases a foul smell to ward off predators. Eyespots are another smoke and mirrors predator avoidance strategy. Many species of butterflies and moths have eyespots (markings that look like eyes) on their wings that they use with flair. When they feel threatened, they flash their wings open, startling the predator, making it think twice about attacking them.

I have fantasies about sporting fangs and wolverine-like claws that would dissuade a potential sexual predator from attacking me. I even fantasise about being a vigilante that goes after leering men in the neighbourhood. But in reality, my predation avoidance strategy is low-key, and just involves fading into the background, or appearing less feminine.

While returning home alone from a friend’s house one night, I wore a shapeless rain poncho and tried to impersonate a man walking. While this probably did not help me blend in with my surroundings, it did make me feel a little more confident. 

I read Why Loiter shortly after devouring Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, in which author Shrayana Bhattacharya traces the lives of women belonging to different classes in India, and the ways that patriarchal norms reduce their time for leisurely activities, such as, in this context, watching Shah Rukh Khan movies. Patriarchy celebrates the multi-tasking woman who takes on household chores, the work of caring and nurturing for the family, and making time for her own work and leisure.

Shrayana writes: “The honour of the family revolves around the virtuous woman.” And it is the virtuous woman, the one who seeks permission and follows all the rules, who is given the most love. These conditions, she argues, function as ‘hidden taxes’; a woman who tries to break free of patriarchal norms is emotionally ‘taxed’ through a lack of respect, love, and support in the household. This then dictates the ways in which women access the job market, leading to dismal numbers of both rural and urban employment of women in India.

Reading Why Loiter and Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh was a revelation. These books brought into focus how women are conditioned early to take up less space for themselves, and have their sense of self revolve around outward appearances and duties. They are taught by both men and other women to be ‘pleasant’ to look at and interact with, to not be too moody, loud, aggressive, pushy, bossy, meek, shy or tentative—all adjectives used disproportionately for working women—to know her place, and the responsibilities only she must bear.

Women are expected to camouflage with their surroundings rather than be too visible, and the nature of their cocoon is to be dictated by society. Any woman who dares to break free of these norms is ‘taxed’ in different ways: she is loved less, and branded as self-centred, uncaring, overly ambitious, or lacking in family values.

The authors of Why Loiter write: “As little girls growing up, we are watched as we sit, stand, eat and move. We are constantly told how to behave, walk and talk, and as we grow older, we are ogled at by men of all ages: uncles, neighbours and strangers alike. So much so that we learn to watch ourselves and internalise society’s gaze which tells us how we should conduct ourselves as good little women.”

In a sort of personal metamorphosis, I’m discovering what it means to take up space for myself. I’m slowly growing more comfortable of being an introvert who would rather not arrange her face in a pleasant smile; has little concern for sticking to dress codes appropriate for her age or marital status; has too much facial and body hair; and likes the mop of wild, unruly hair on her head just the way it is. I’m learning to be more assertive, to say no, and set clear boundaries.

Spreading my wings in this way helped me confront a voice in my head, a rich composition of all the voices I heard around me growing up, that did not let me take up space for myself, or let me reflect on what I wanted for myself. Instead, I was always thinking about what the people around me wanted; my happiness hinged on their appreciation of my actions.

Much of this stems from social conditioning—of people rewarding you when you do things that are expected of your gender (I was often called ‘a sweet girl’). I began to resent people calling me sweet, but didn’t know what I had to do to make it stop. In impersonating the perfect girl, woman, mother, and colleague that society expects, I wonder if we lose sight of who we really are.

Butterflies and moths employ a form of impersonation called mimicry to hoodwink their predators. Butterflies such as the female Common Mormon are almost perfect mimics of a toxic species of Swallowtail butterfly—the two species visually look the same. A predator that associates the Swallowtail with its bad taste would then most likely think that the Common Mormon is distasteful too. Some butterfly mimics are toxic themselves, but mimic other toxic butterflies to strengthen the association between their appearance and foul taste.

As a society, we tend to normalise and even celebrate women’s predator avoidance strategies, elaborate defences, and countless other acrobatics she must engage in, in order to be accepted and loved. It is time that we instead centred the conversation on patriarchal norms and gender stereotypes. Shrayana Bhattacharya and the authors of Why Loiter deftly tackle issues like women’s rights, agency, and liberties. Interwoven with economics, social science, and urban planning, these themes spotlight the ways that patriarchal norms rear their ugly head in different aspects of a woman’s life. I hope that we can similarly pinpoint how women’s rights and the rights of marginalised communities intersect with the numerous other aspects of how we live, love, work, and spend our leisure time.

As I watched the Blue Tiger Moth caterpillar languidly moving up a plant in my husband’s ancestral house in Kasargod, I heard my mother-in-law in the kitchen, cooking breakfast for the rest of the family. Before my husband and I went in to help her, I wondered how women burdened with care-giving find the time and support to access public spaces and observe the wondrous strategies of butterflies to escape predation—when the predator named patriarchy is still very much at large.

About the author

Anisha Jayadevan is a PhD student studying grasslands in India. She co-authored The Living Museum, a book about urban biodiversity that will be out later this year.

Find Anisha on Twitter and Instagram.