India faces backlash for clothing guidelines for female tourists

In an effort to curb sexual assaults, India's tourism minister has suggested that female tourists not wear skirts or walk alone at night, advice that gender equality advocates say reflects a culture of 'victim-blaming.'

Adnan Abidi/Reuters/File
Tourists stand next to a goat inside a farm house near the Jhajjar district in the northern Indian state of Haryana on March 31, 2012.

Women visiting India should not wear short skirts or walk alone at night, said the country's tourism minister on Sunday, setting off a wave of headlines and criticism from gender equality advocates. 

In a welcome kit presented to foreign arrivals to India, female tourists "are given dos and don'ts," tourism minister Mahesh Sharma explained while discussing tourist security in the north Indian city of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. "These are very small things like, they should not venture out alone at night in small places, or wear skirts, and they should click the photo of the vehicle number plate [of the car they are riding in] whenever they travel and send it to friends."

The safety tips, introduced last year, are part of an effort to reverse the decline in female tourists to India following the fatal gang rape of a Delhi medical student in 2012 and a number of attacks on foreign visitors since then. The guideline to dress modestly and avoid being alone at night echo common advice to female travelers around the world. Coming from an official, however, the tips set off an online furor from women's advocates who argue they reflect an antiquated attitude of victim-blaming, and greater concern for policing women's dress and behavior than preventing or punishing assaults themselves. 

"The minister doesn't realize the implications of such irresponsible statements," Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Centre for Social Research, a think tank that focuses on gender equality in India, told The Guardian. "[T]he problem is men and boys in India.... It's important for [Sharma] to have said how to punish the perpetrators of crime and stop the nonsense of ogling women and following them."

Since the highly publicized assault and murder of a 23-year-old woman in 2012, there have been some legislative steps taken to offer more protection to women, such as expanding the legal definition of rape and increasing sentences for convictions. Just as important, a cultural shift has also begun, some experts say, after the 2012 incident in particular raised awareness of, and opened up a national discussion on, sexual violence.

"There's a conversation about rape in India that you'd not been hearing very loudly before," Michael Kugleman, a senior scholar in Asian studies at the Wilson Center, told VICE News last year. "People are more likely to come forward now and report rapes when they happen. They see that it is starting to get attention and it is starting to be condemned."

But gender equality advocates say that while there has been some progress made, there is still a long way to go. An average of 92 women report rapes each day in India, according to 2014 government data. And according to a recent survey, 79 percent of Indian women have experienced some form of public violence or street harassment. 

The fatal rape in 2012 "prompted desperate calls for reform, protests and close examination of India's attitudes toward rape," journalist and activist Ruchira Gupta wrote in a 2013 op-ed for CNN. "But after the initial outrage, it seems that the law has only changed on paper." 

When one of the four men sentenced to death for the attack told interviewers that "a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," and that "Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes," critics pointed out that he was echoing commonly held views

Much of the cultural change that needs to happen, activists say, must come from the top down. But Mr. Sharma, the tourism minister, is far from the first leader to be criticized for "victim-blaming." Other officials who have come under fire include Manohar Lal Khattar, the top elected official of Haryana state, who asserted that "if a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way."

In 2011, Dinesh Reddy, the director general of the police in the state of Andhra Pradesh, said that "fashionable dresses worn by women, even in rural areas, are among the factors leading to an increase in rape cases. The police have no control over this matter." 

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