“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do.”
Lowering the gaze is an act both male and female Muslims are encouraged to do (the verse just quoted goes on to include the importance of females lowering the gaze as well); the reason for which is often cited as protection against sinful thoughts and later down the road, sinful actions. In short, since the gaze is the gateway for further potential sin, lowering your gaze protects YOU.
However, research shows that the male gaze affects more than the self – it has serious deleterious effects on the female recipient of the gaze.
Sexual gazing is an accepted part of Western society, as it has long been deemed “the socially sanctioned right of all males to sexualize females, regardless of age or status” (Westkott, 1986 – quoted in Fredrickso & Roberts, 1997). Sexual objectification in Western society is rampant, and often the most common manifestation of this is through the gaze. Women are socialized from birth to believe that they are not actual people valued for who they are intrinsically, but are bodies that “exist for the use and pleasure of others” (ibid), and so are accustomed to constant scrutiny.
Studies have found that women are gazed at more than men, and male gazing is commonly accompanied by sexual comments. Further, women of color are often the object of more degrading, sexual commentary than White women. This type of behavior is reinforced in the mass media, as advertisement analyses show that males gaze directly at females far more than the reverse, often resulting in what the advertising industry has termed the “anchored drift,” in which a male stares at or monitors a female who is daydreaming or looking off into the distance (ibid).
The impact of the male gaze has been found to have serious affects on females in research. One such study (Calogero, 2004) revealed that the male gaze results in the female experiencing significantly more feelings of shame and embarrassment about her body. In fact, a female does not have to actually experience the male gaze; only imagining or anticipating a male gaze triggers the same negative psychological response. Further, other research indicates that body shame is correlated with eating disorders and depression.
So in sum, males indulging in gazing and staring at females causes real harm! Although the practice of looking at and visually evaluating women is deeply ingrained in Western society, God, in all His unending wisdom, has asked us to resist cultural influences and lower our gaze. Indeed it is “purer” for the males as they can help prevent inappropriate thoughts and temptations to commit indecent actions, and males lowering their gaze is “purer” for females too, as lowering the gaze protects them from serious, long-lasting psychological and physical damage.
Social science researchers express a great deal of alarm at the way in which Western society sexually objectifies females, and engage in much discussion and research in order to find solutions. Yet, Islam has given us a very simple solution that if each of us practiced, this awful culture of systematic oppression against women would be quickly decimated.
EDIT: In looking for a photo for this post, I had a very difficult time finding one of a man with downcast or closed eyes! I found many of women or girls, and finally gave up and chose this one of a boy with his eyes closed. Indeed, this is real evidence that the male gaze is highly promoted in the media when hardly any photos exist of males NOT gazing!