The latest advice from India’s tourism minister about women visitors to the country repeats a tired trope—to stay safe, Mahesh Sharma told foreign women, don’t “wear skirts.“ Sharma’s advice is similar to other cringe-worthy reasons that Indian officials have offered for years for sexual attacks, blaming women for everything from donning Western clothing to not wearing overcoats.
There is no evidence to support these reasons, and plenty to refute them: Women get raped no matter how covered up they are, and some studies even suggest (pdf, pg. 20) that more revealing clothing might signal a confidence that scares off potential rapists looking for submissive victims.
But the ridiculous idea persists, and Indian officials are hardly alone in trotting it out: judges, officials, and prosecutors have blamed rapes from Canada to Egypt to Italy to US college campuses on the victims’ clothing, rather than on the men that attacked them.
For stark proof that this is a myth, let’s compare the safety of women in Hong Kong with that of women in New Delhi.
I lived in Delhi for over six years before landing in Hong Kong in 2013. The move was a big change for many reasons, including how freely women dress here—from being surrounded by other women swathed (usually beautifully) in fabric that often went from neck to ankle in Delhi, I was suddenly in the midst of a sea of teeny shorts, mid-thigh skirts, and sleeveless shirts. Momentarily, I turned into a tutting auntie (“Good Lord, is she really wearing that to the office?!”)…and then, like nearly everyone else in Hong Kong, except for maybe the fashion bloggers, I just shrugged and went on with my day.
Women in Hong Kong wear whatever they damn well please—from tap shorts and three inch heels to office to strappy tank tops and mini-jogging shorts to go sightseeing to cut-off jean shorts paired with Wellington boots when it rains. They travel on public transportation, slog away at corporate jobs, and go out at night in whatever they want—and I’ve never seen a women be catcalled by a Hong Kong guy.
More importantly, women don’t get sexually attacked here at anywhere near the same rate as they do in Delhi, despite what they wear because…men from Hong Kong don’t attack them at the same rate. Hong Kong’s overall number of reported sexual attacks on women is remarkably lower than Delhi’s:
There’s no way to explain away these numbers. Yes, Delhi’s population of 18.6 million is more than twice Hong Kong’s 7.2 million. But that still means the rate at which women in Delhi are being assaulted is much higher.
Hong Kong certainly has plenty of instances of gender discrimination and unfair blame being apportioned to women, but at least no one is suggesting that putting on a skirt means it is their fault if some guy attacks them.
Ask young men in Hong Kong why they think women are safer in public here than in Delhi, no matter what they’re wearing, and you get a lot of puzzled replies. Some say that in Hong Kong sexual criminals are viewed as an even lower form of life than other criminals. There’s a widespread belief that even in jail they are looked down upon and bullied by the other inmates.
Tai Chan, a 19-year-old Hong Konger who is now a university student in Australia, said he could “never” imagine catcalling a woman on the street. “People will think you’re nuts, alright?,” he said. If he was ever caught surreptitiously checking a woman out, he’d be “embarrassed.” After all, he said, “it makes the girls uncomfortable.”
Tom Tsui contributed reporting from Hong Kong.