Where ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ does not apply for the female traveler
Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri
On 18 August, CNN.com carried a story by an exchange student who went by the name RoseChasm about her India experience. Titled “India: The Story You Never Wanted To Hear” the author, a University of Chicago student, who was on a study trip to India, wrote about how the horror of her experience as a female tourist in India sent her into such a state of shock that she had to take a medical leave of absence from university to deal with what the doctors diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
She wrote, “For three months I lived this way, in a traveler’s heaven and a woman’s hell. I was stalked, groped, masturbated at.”
She isn’t the only one to return with not so pleasant memories about her trip to India. The list is long and grim. Earlier this year in March, a British tourist staying at a hotel in Agra jumped from the window of her first floor room to escape a rape attempt. A Swiss cyclist was gang raped in Madhya Pradesh earlier this year, and also in Madhya Pradesh, a South Korean tourist was allegedly drugged and raped by the son of the owner of the hotel she was staying in. In June this year, an American tourist was gang raped in Manali, a tourist town in Himachal Pradesh.
These incidents are negatively affecting tourism into India, given that over 40 per cent of tourists visiting India are women. According to reports quoting the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, nearly 72 percent of tour operators had cancellations from female visitors from countries such as Canada, the United States and Australia. Countries have also issued travel advisories asking their citizens to be careful while in India. The advisories given by most governments are commonsensical and would apply to any woman anywhere in the world, primarily to avoid or to be careful while traveling alone at night, especially on public transportation or in remote or unlit areas. The US advises women against solo travel in India.
The Union Ministry of Tourism is reported to be seriously considering a proposal that says tourism personnel should wear a badge that states “I respect women”. According to the proposal, the metal badges would be distributed to people working in the tourism industry and would be available in English, Hindi as well as international languages like Chinese, French, Korean, Japanese, Arabic and Russian.
A badge might not do much to reassure women tourists, nor change mindsets which prey on women, tourists or otherwise, other proposals in the pipeline though, seem more constructive. These include a multi-language 24-hour helpline to be displayed on travellers’ disembarkation cards, a mobile phone app linked to the helpline to allow for emergency alerts to be sent as well as tourism police being set up, which includes home guards, ex-army officers and NCC cadets across all states. There has also been discussion about linking a mobile phone app to the helpline, which would enable people to send emergency alerts depicting location. The council has also proposed that a tourism police force which includes home guards, ex-army officers and NCC cadets, be set up in all the states.
From Lonely Planet, an article entitled “Safety tips for women travellers in India,” states “You’re very unlikely to experience violent crime as a woman traveller in India; it’s sexual harassment that you may experience – more so in tourist towns and larger cities in the north of the country. Rude comments, voyeurism, and men ‘brushing against’ or groping women are all common. Come prepared for this: be ready to make a fuss when it happens, and don’t let it put you off experiencing beautiful, chaotic India.” The street sexual harassment and molestation female foreign tourists experience can be quite terrifying—constant groping, sexual comments, voyeurism—all occurring in busy public spaces may seem to the tourist that this harassment has tacit social sanction. According to the same Lonely Planet article, “Although there’s no proven link between revealing dress and sex crimes, in India western standards of dress can be seen as an invitation to hassle…. Many Indian women dress as they like, rightfully finding these codes oppressive and believing that the onus should be on others not to assault or harass women. But foreigners attract a lot of attention as it is, and most travellers find that dressing modestly just makes things easier.”
The solutions to this are long term, beginning with a change in attitude, in the way some men in our country view women, the mistaken perception by some that female foreign tourists are ‘available’. But the bottomline is that this isn’t about foreign or Indian women, about Caucasian or wheatish complexions, of western clothing or traditional Indian wear. This is about gender issues predominant in our country, the attitude that it is a macho thing to be sexually aggressive, that a woman’s consent is immaterial, that of objectification of a woman as a sexual object. According to a survey supported by UN Women, 95 per cent of women in Delhi felt unsafe in public places, three of four men stated that women provoke by their dress and women moving around at night were asking to be sexually harassed. More shockingly, 51 percent of men surveyed considered themselves to have sexually harassed or committed an act of violence against women in a public place.
This is not to say that violence against women does not exist in other countries, even the US – which has issued a no solo travel caution advisory for women tourists in India, has its own terrifying statistic of “one rape every two minutes,” Steubenville and monsters like Ariel Crasto. Violence against women is a global pandemic, not isolated to countries like India where patriarchal mindsets are predominant. Sexual harassment on the streets is a plague that perhaps does get amplified for foreign tourists, but is something that Indian women face in their everyday life. We need to reach, through a combination of legislation, mindset changes and gender sensitization efforts in every classroom, a stage where any woman, Indian or foreign, can walk down a street without being automatically perceived as an object of lust. And while the RoseChasm story is horrifying to read, we need to step back for a moment, breathe deep and read this perspective from another woman who was also on the same trip. “When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism.”