Response of a foreign woman traveling in India to minister’s ‘no-skirt’ comment

“Mahesh Sharma’s advisory for tourists: No short skirts, no travelling alone at night.”

This headline has probably already made its way to your Facebook and Twitter feed and back again in the last 48 hours. It’s referring to comments made by Union Minister Mahesh Sharma during a press conference on Sunday at the popular tourist destination, Agra. Sharma warned female foreigners against wearing skirts or venturing “out alone at night in small cities” in India.

His statement mimicked the existing sexist rhetoric rampant in international dialogues around crimes against women: It’s the woman’s fault. Her clothes were some sort of provocation. Why was she out alone? She was travelling alone? Women shouldn’t travel alone. Women should be afraid.

Sharma’s comments followed a week of international debate concerning the burkini in France. Both the burkini and Sharma’s comments serve as a reminder, as if we needed one, of just how closely women’s bodies and what they choose to adorn them with are policed.

Sharma has since “clarified” his comments: “I was speaking about religious places, like temples. I did not comment on what women should wear or not. I am the father of two daughters, I cannot put a ban on what women wear…Such a ban is unimaginable, but it is not a crime to be cautious. Different countries issue advisories from time to time, but I never said change anyone’s way of dressing.”

Not sure what his two daughters have to do with his insinuation that foreign women dressed a certain way are asking for it, but good that he did attempt to ameliorate what was said.

Let me be clear, foreigners travelling India, like myself, should absolutely be respectful of the culture and that respect should absolutely translate into what they chose to put on their body. The issue of respecting or disrespecting Indian culture as a traveller however, is entirely separate from the issue of crimes against women, foreign or not. Treating these two issues as if they are somehow interconnected is what makes his statement so problematic.

It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing!

A women who disrespects Indian culture via her clothes isn’t asking to be assaulted. A woman who does everything she can to assimilate, to blend in with locals is not protected from assault. Let me be the billionth women to exclaim: IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT SHE IS WEARING.

As Sharma emphasized, Indian and Western culture are different, of course. For me, that has sometimes meant dressing somewhat more conservatively than I normally would and being cautious when I am out at night, especially when I am travelling outside of Bengaluru. But for the most part, as a woman—who no matter what her surroundings are, always has to be more careful and aware than her male peers—my habits have not had to change much.

I came from living in a large American city to a large Indian city. I was very cautious when I was out alone at night in Seattle in the exact same way I am here. I am approached my strange men in India, just as I was approached by strange men in the U.S. and in both countries, I employ the same tactics to be rid of them. Yes, it is unfortunate that I even have such tactics, but that is the reality. The point is, sexism is global and sexism doesn’t really care what you’re wearing.

Women are not only expected to take the normal precautions to keep ourselves out of dangerous situations, we are expected to go that extra mile and ensure our attitudes, our words and our clothes don’t encourage someone else to put as in a dangerous situation. We are expected to be hyper-aware all the time. We are constantly flooded with horror-stories, dos and don’ts, listacles of how to do something safe, which will likely be an activity inherently safe for men, e.g. riding the bus.

I can’t tell you how many articles I read titled something like “How to Backpack India Solo While Female.”

Imaginary husbands and the myth of feeling safe

We are already doing enough. To imply that our outfits will be the cause of any crime against us is harmful and counter-productive. It does nothing to target the source of these crimes.

Sharma’s fueling the fear many foreign and Indian women already have of exploring India. If you are smart and careful you will be fine travelling India solo. I know this, I am doing it, I’ve been doing it, and I am absolutely fine.

Before leaving for India, I was given a lot of advice, mostly unsolicited. The most common piece of advice was to never tell anyone you meet that you are travelling alone: “You have to tell them you have friends waiting for you at the hostel, or better, your husband is waiting there to meet you!”

I’ve yet to claim an imaginary husband because that, for me, crosses the line of just trying to be safe to losing my self respect, but I have said many times that I have friends waiting. Each time I do, I feel a ping of guilt for lying to basically everyone I meet. It’s incredibly frustrating to think if I were a young man, I wouldn’t have to lie. I wouldn’t have to think so much about my safety all the time. It wouldn’t be a factor in nearly every decision I make at home or abroad. I could just be.

Everyday women all over the world have to fight the fear mongering that limits their ability to live as freely as men. Political leaders, like Sharma, should do their part to discourage this fear mongering, and encourage women to travel India, foreign and Indian women alike. Sharma’s energy should be spent developing ways to stop men from assaulting women, whether she’s running down the street naked or in a burka.

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