NEWS BRIEF India’s tourism minister said female tourists traveling to the country should not wear skirts “for their own safety,” prompting criticism that such advice fuels a culture that blames sexual assault on women’s dress and behavior.
Mahesh Sharma made the comments during a press conference Sunday in response to a question about security in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. The day before, three men had kidnapped a 15-year-old girl who was walking on the street and raped her for two hours while they drove around in a van. It was the 33rd rape of a minor in the last five months, according to The Times of India.
Here’s Sharma’s full quote, as reported in The Indian Express. The “kits” he mentions include informational pamphlets the Indian government began offering last year that include safety tips for women:
We give welcome kits to tourists when they land at the airport. The kit includes a card with do’s and don’ts such as, do not venture out alone at night in small towns, do not wear skirts; take a picture of the registration number of the vehicle you use and send it to a friend ...
CNN reports the tourism advice in the kit does not mention skirts. In the section on clothing, it reads: “Some parts of India, particularly the smaller towns and villages, still have traditional styles of dressing.” The pamphlet also mentions some religious places ask travelers to cover their heads or remove their shoes, and encourages tourists to learn about local customs where they plan to travel.
Sharma has previously made controversial remarks about how women in India should behave; last year, he said going out at night might be acceptable for women elsewhere, “but it is not part of Indian culture.” Later on Sunday, Sharma tried to walk back his comments, saying he meant them as a precautionary recommendation, and wasn’t inferring a dress code for female tourists. But critics jumped on Sharma’s words, saying that telling women to change their dress in this way puts the onus on preventing sexual assault on the victims of the crime, and not the perpetrators. Rape cases in India have increasingly drawn international attention after the 2012 fatal gang rape of a woman in Delhi. The assault led to massive protests around the country and reforms of sexual-assault laws that made it easier to convict perpetrators.
Foreign tourism dropped 25 percent the year following the Delhi rape. Since then, India has tried to reform its image as a safe travel destination for women.