Indian ministers, regardless of their political affiliation, have always shown far greater keenness to lecture women on dress codes than hold the police accountable for not doing their job: that is, ensuring the safety of women in all spaces at all times, day or night.
Keeping firmly within this tradition, Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma cautioned women tourists against wearing skirts and travelling alone in India’s small towns. According to a report in The Indian Express, while addressing a press conference in Agra on Sunday, Sharma said: “Paryatako ko, jab wo airport par aate hain, unko ek welcome kit di jaa rahi hai. Ek card hai usme, usme do’s and don’ts, kya karein aur kya na karein. Jaise chhoti chhoti batein hain, humne unhe bataya ke aap chhoti jagah par raat-waat ke time akele na niklein, skirts na pahnein… Doosra humne unhe bataya ki aap jis gaadi mein baithe, us gaadi ki number plate ka photo le lein aur apne… kisi dost ko forward kar dein… (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…)”
It is a sad reflection on the state of the country that one of its cabinet ministers is considering announcing dress code advisories and restrictions on foreign women tourists. This move only confirms what other countries have often suspected about India. To recall, in this context, the travel advisories periodically issued by foreign governments about visiting India have reached a crescendo, of course, after the gangrape of the medical student in Delhi on 16 December, 2012. In other words, many international governments did not, and often do not, consider India as a safe destination safe for its women citizens.
Now, our own government too seems to be admitting to this fact and almost conceding its failure in ensuring women’s safety across India. If such an admission doesn’t embarrass us or the government, then surely nothing else will. After all, what would “smart cities and bullet trains” be worth if women who access these places and transport systems have to dress, according to government advisories and travel while constantly looking over their shoulders?
But the bizarre thing about all this is that the culture minister seems unaware that he has actually made a public admission of his government’s failure to ensure safety. In fact, on Sunday he appeared to suggest that the onus of safety falls on women tourists themselves. One wonders why it never struck the minister that the onus should, in fact, rest primarily and decisively on the police and local administrations around the country. Not a word was said about the police in this context.
The subtext of the minister’s proposed advisory instead reiterates the age-old misogynist belief that women are molested, harassed, and raped because of the way they dress
“Provocative, revealing” is how politicians – like many other men – are prone to describe any attire they believe to be an “invitation” to sexual predators.
Making matters worse, Sharma later invoked his status as the father of two daughters to clarify that he has not proposed a dress code or banned skirts. “I am a father of two daughters... I would never tell women what they should wear or not.” This is not the first time that politicians have fallen back on their daughters to prove how aware they are of women’s rights and their concerns. What that has to do with ensuring safety for women is, of course, anybody’s guess.
Last but not least, Sharma intoned the government’s favourite advertising jingle. He said Indian culture espouses ‘Atithi Devobhava’ (a guest is akin to god). “Such a ban (on wearing a skirt) is unimaginable, but it is not a crime to be cautious. Different countries issue advisories from time to time, but I never said change one’s way of dressing,” the minister said. Clearly, like his countless other colleagues across party lines, Sharma doesn’t get the nub of the matter: that he is tacitly admitting that Indian men can turn into sexual predators at any moment if provoked. This is hardly a flattering tagline for a nation jostling to get a seat on the world stage.