Miniskirts In India Are Under Fire & It’s Another Example Of Its Rape Culture Problem
On Sunday, India's tourism minister had a word of caution for incoming female tourists: Don't wear miniskirts. Mahesh Sharma said that foreign travelers to India shouldn't wear miniskirts for "their own safety." Sharma's solution for tourist security consists of passing out a welcome kit containing safety advice in which includes tips like don't wear miniskirts, don't stay out late, and don't venture into places that aren't crowded. Nowhere in the welcome kit is there any advice to potential perpetrators, like "don't sexually assault women." It seems simple enough, but this is another instance in which women are advised to restrict their bodies and freedom in public spaces in lieu of actually attacking the root problems of persistent rape culture.
Sharma referred to the kit and its welcome advice as just "simple things" of "do's and don'ts," but the outrage on both the national and international stages were instantaneous. India has seen a recent string of sexual assaults committed against female tourists, and while assault and rape isn't limited to just female tourists and travelers, Sharma's statement highlights the problem of traveling alone as a woman in the country. Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau indicate that, as of 2013, 92 women are raped every day in India.
Sharma's statement was a bid to encourage more tourism, which has significantly decreased when it comes to women travelers. Caution for women tourists visiting India has come from international sources, too, like advice from the UK's Home Office which reflects Sharma's words:
Women should use caution when traveling in India. Reported cases of sexual assault against women and young girls are increasing; recent sexual attacks against female visitors in tourist areas and cities show that foreign women are also at risk. ... If you are a woman traveling in India you should respect local dress codes and customs and avoid isolated areas, including beaches, when alone at any time of day.
The biggest problem with advice like this, no matter the intent of ensuring safety for women, is that in the long term, it only helps to harm the safety of women. By placing the responsibility on women and trying to enforce a system of behavior very much informed by patriarchal thought, the real causes of the problem fly under the radar. While India has enforced stricter rape laws since 2012, the fact that Sharma issued such advice in the first place calls into doubt whether the dynamic of rape culture is really being questioned.
CNN reported that India has one of the worst police-to-citizens ratios in the world, with fewer lawyers and judges to process all kinds of cases, and even fewer forensics laboratories, than what is needed. Advice like "don't wear miniskirts" or "don't travel alone late at night" do nothing to actually confront the problem. Wrote Indian columnist Ira Travedi:
What is unsafe is the patriarchal mindset which makes Indian men feel that they can violate a woman without any consequences. This is the mindset which we need to address, change and punish. This will not happen by distributing safety kits or discouraging miniskirts.
Due to the backlash Sharma received, he has since backtracked. On Monday, he told reporters that while he has two daughters, "it is not a crime to be cautious."
"I would never tell women what they should wear or not," he said. But this isn't the first time Sharma has come under fire. Last year, he said that girls shouldn't go out at night, citing that it is not part of Indian culture. Sharma thinks that women should be cautious, but what should we all really be cautious of? It's not a particular kind of clothing or a time of the day. We need to be cautious of how such advice only serves to perpetuate the instability of women's safety, and that is the insidious impact of rape culture.