India’s tourism minister has some advice for female visitors: avoid skirts

Watch out.
Watch out.
Image: Reuters/Arko Datta
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Evidently, the world is far from giving up on dictating dress codes for women.

While the burkini debate rages across countries, the Indian government has sent out a more disturbing message, especially for foreign tourists: “Dress appropriately to stay safe in India.”

On Aug. 28, the country’s minister for tourism and culture, Mahesh Sharma, detailed a list of dos and don’ts that would be presented to tourists at the airport as part of a welcome kit. Speaking to the media in Agra, the north Indian city that is home to the Taj Mahal, Sharma said: “(The list) has instructions like if they are in small cities, they should not roam around alone at night or wear skirts.”

Sharma’s comments, in response to a question about promoting safety for female tourists, come as India faces a persistent reputation of being unsafe for women, particularly foreign tourists, following frequent incidents of harassment, assault, and even rape across the country.

The minister was, however, quick to say that he wasn’t telling women what to wear, but only suggesting that they be careful while going out at night, and while visiting temples and other places of religious significance . A day later, Sharma reiterated that he had not sought to impose any dressing restrictions on anyone.

In Agra, however, Sharma insisted that there is a difference between Indian and western cultures that makes “skimpy” clothing an inappropriate choice.

Nevertheless, he seems to have given some concession to foreign tourists. Last year, he had declared that Indian women shouldn’t at all go out in the nights. “Girls wanting a night out may be all right elsewhere but it is not part of Indian culture,” he said in September 2015.

Similarly, in October 2015, when an elderly man in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh was murdered by a mob for eating beef, Sharma had sought to play down the incident by citing the mob’s “restraint” in not harming the victim’s 17-year-old daughter.

Underlying Sharma’s latest remarks is the commonly-held assumption that revealing clothes provoke sexual harassment. However, as past incidents of violent assault and rape across the country have shown, short skirts are hardly to blame.