Content warning: rape, sexual assault.
For a country in which one of the national dresses for women is the sari — an outfit that, even with all its yards of fabric, features a crop top that exposes a woman’s cleavage, back, and full belly — it was jarring to read that the Indian Minister of Tourism, Mahesh Sharma, issued a travel advisory to foreign women telling them to not wear skirts.
Never mind that many Indian women wear skirts, Indian fashion magazines are filled with skirted women and Bollywood movies now feature skimpy western dress far more than traditional Asian garb. Sharma says, “For their own safety, women foreign tourists should not wear short dresses and skirts … Indian culture is different from the western.”
In other words, he’s saying: if you come to India dressed in a skirt, you’re asking to be raped.
There is no doubt that Indian culture is different. The west doesn’t have a pantheon of badass goddesses who do what they want and often walk around bare-breasted as they do it, or with their chestature covered in a necklace of male skulls (as is the case with my own patron goddess, Kali). The majority of western cultures have not been actively worshiping female deities since the dawn of time, and even today goddess worship in the west is considered a so-called New Age practice, not a legitimate religious or authentic practice according to most. In the geopolitical region we know of as “The West,” and to which the Indian tourism minister is referring, there is no corresponding history of strong female religious figures. We have the Virgin Mary, that’s all. Even Joan of Arc is considered a fringe figure. The Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons are appreciated as history, but not included in actual religious practices anymore.
While it seems logical that a culture built on a foundation of male and female equality in its vast pantheon of gods and goddesses would subsequently reflect on intra-gender relations in daily life, we have quite the opposite — evidenced in India’s horrific and ongoing gang rape problem and a general culture of victim-blaming.
According to statistics by the National Crime Records Bureau and published by India Today, 92 women are raped each day in India. When compared to American statistics provided by the Rape, Abuse and Incest Nation Network, which estimate 791 women are raped each day, India’s stats seem suspiciously low — especially since the country has roughly 1.3 billion residents, compared to the United States’s roughly 319 million.
There is a reason for this: the rape of so-called Untouchable women and other lower classes are not included in the statistics. Sexual violence against prostitutes and trafficked or exploited women are not recorded. Nor is partner or acquaintance rape, which accounts for the majority of sexual assaults around the world and especially those that go unreported. In India, the rapes that make the news are those of foreign women and of course the grotesque gang rapes like that of Jyoti Singh, which resulted in national and international outcry.
In Jyoti’s case especially, India’s culture of misogyny and victim-blaming found its pinnacle when one of her attackers told British documentary filmmaker Leslee Udwin:
“When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’ and only hit the boy. … The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when they rape, they won’t leave the girl like we did. They will kill her. Before, they would rape and say, ‘Leave her, she won’t tell anyone.’ Now when they rape, especially the criminal types, they will just kill the girl. Death.”
Let’s add to the Molotov cocktail of these sexual politics the prevalence of increasingly violent, dehumanizing and degrading Western pornography that saturates the Internet. If Indian men think an Indian woman walking by herself is asking for it, just imagine what they think of the Western women who visit their country: that they aren’t just asking for it, they want it. They need it. So, not only is Western dress on a Western woman coded as provocative in a different way than on an Indian woman, there is a further assumption that she is sexually liberated, sexually active and sexually available to anyone who wants her.
This circular logic is the foundation of India’s problem with women: that women exist at all for functions other than sex. Instead of teaching young boys and men to treat women like complete human beings who deserve equal rights, compassion and respect no matter what they are wearing or who they are, boys are taught that their urges are uncontrollable and women who dare to exist in public spaces are fair game.
Whether Western or not, whether in a sari or salwar kameez or in a hijab or a skirt, sexual violence is the woman’s fault because of her mere existence. Her very physical presence means she’s asking for it no matter where she comes from and no matter what she may be wearing.
Until Indian men recognize that women are actual human beings with basic human rights, it doesn’t matter if a woman wears a skirt or a sari or a head to toe burka. She is a potential target for sexual violence. Issuing a travel advisory will not fix rape in India. Educating men on how to respect women, essentially teaching them how not to rape, is the only thing that will end India’s rape epidemic.
Skirts are not the problem; misogynistic men are. Where’s the travel advisory for that actual threat?