Let’s not skirt the issue of sexual violence

Mahesh Sharma

Recently Mahesh Sharma, India’s Cultural Minister, advised foreign women to self-regulate their behavior in India “for their own safety”. He noted that the welcome kits given to all foreign arrivals now include safety advice for women, like admonishing them to not wear skirts or venture out alone at night. “Some parts of India, particularly the smaller towns and villages, still have traditional styles of dressing. Do find out about local customs and traditions or concerned authorities before visiting such places.”

This advice wrongly implies that a woman’s dress is enough to invite a man to sexually violate her and it further suggests that Indian men cannot control themselves when they see a woman dressed in a skirt, showing a bit of leg.

This kind of logic is not new and often times women and girls have to abide by the strict guidelines set by a patriarchal society with the onus for a woman’s safety lying solely with her. Growing up, we are told, “Dress appropriately”, “Your skirt is too short”, “Your bra strap can be seen” and thus we are made to feel ashamed of ourselves and our bodies. Furthermore it has not helped that Indian leaders – politicians and religious – have listed the causes of rape as including the consumption of meat, use of mobile phones and wearing western clothing, like jeans.

But clothing does not cause rape or harassment. The Bangalore-based organization Blank Noise’s #INeverAskForIt campaign invites survivors to snap photos of the piece of clothing they were wearing when they faced sexual violence. In browsing through the photos, you find everything from school dresses to long dresses to jeans to formal pants to traditional Indian clothing. Clothing is just an excuse to control women and divert attention from putting the responsibility on men for their actions.

Sexual violence is a pandemic. This year ActionAid UK found that nearly four out of five women (79 per cent) in India have experienced some form of harassment or violence in public. Women aged between 18 and 24 reported the highest rates. About 44 per cent said they have been wolf-whistled and have had sexual comments passed at them and as many as 69 per cent women said that they have been stared at.

Elsa Marie DSilva

These incidents are not confined to small towns and cities, as implied by the Tourism Minister. They are reported from every part of the country. Recently they include: a student raping a young woman on JNU Campus in Delhi, a mother and daughter gang raped in the presence of their family on a highway in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a Kerala student gang raped in her own home. Such incidents coupled with those that have taken place with foreign women in India — an Israeli woman gang raped in Manali and an Uber driver in Mumbai molesting a foreign national — don’t really inspire confidence amongst travellers that India is a safe place.

Clearly much work needs to be done to change attitudes towards women and girls in India, and a lot of the effort needs to be made to include men and boys as part of the solution. Policing women’s dress is definitely not the solution.