I would like to start off by saying that I am not an especially pretty woman. I am perfectly average-looking, and I am certainly not beautiful. On top of that, I don't put on makeup. I don't wear jewelry. I don't even brush my hair, most days.
I dress in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law. This means long skirts past my knees, long sleeves past my elbows, shirts that rise to my collarbone, everything loose-fitting. Frankly, you can't see much, even if you're looking. You can tell that I'm a girl, but that's about it.
No, my problem isn't beauty. My problem is that I can't stop looking people in the eye.
I was catcalled twice my first two days in New York. Yes, me. Can you believe it? The first guy, a black man who sported a huge Afro, indicated my own frizzy hair and said, "I like your style of...different!" That was pretty funny. But also scary because he was bigger than me, and if he felt comfortable checking me out and commenting on my looks, who knows what else he would do? It was that uncertainty that made me look down and walk faster.
The second man was lounging around between Barnard and the Hillel building. He was the only person standing completely still on the swarming sidewalk, so I looked at him - just for a second! Less, even. I looked at him because he was standing still and my eyes caught the lack of movement, and then I looked away, but it was too late. He was already walking besides me, keeping pace with me.
"I've been looking for a wife," he told me. "You might be interested?" I kept walking, faster, and he gave up and faded into the background.
Funny again. But even scarier.
Are you a man? Are you tall, maybe muscular? Imagine someone a head taller than you, bigger than you, stronger than you, looking down at you and saying something like that.
Then there's the staring.
I went to Yeshiva University the other day to visit a couple of friends. We walked around the area to a nearby park, then we went to get food. I stood between my two male friends like they were bodyguards, and felt the eyes on me. Nobody said anything to me this time, since I was with men, but I did not feel safe. Me, Baila, the girl who's not afraid of anything. I asked my friends to take the subway back to school with me even though that was asking them to waste their money on an extra ticket because I was scared.
I have narrowly avoided terror attacks. I have gotten off a bus on Road 60, the most terrorized road in Israel, and walked home by myself, alone, at night (long story). I have walked through the Arab Market in Jerusalem, where people are killed for being Jewish. I have pictured my own death. But never before has anyone had the nerve to look at me like that.
"I am real," I want to tell them. "I am a human being, like you." But I know that they won't believe me. They see the faint swell of my breasts beneath my shirt and the slight gentle curve of my jaw, they see my female body, and that is all they see.