Dear India’s tourism minister, let women exercise their freedom

Dear Mahesh Sharma,

As I write this letter to you, I recall a recent trip I took to Shillong in the north east of India. Here, I was a clear outsider or tourist, standing six inches taller than most men or women.

During my stay, I went out for morning runs in shorts, I wore mini skirts in restaurants and clubs and I roamed the streets wearing whatever I felt fit, without a single, discomfiting male or female gaze on my bare legs.
Shillong, too, is part of India and here, any woman, local or tourist, can wear whatever she feels like without comprising her safety or honor in any way.

My experience in Shillong is testament to the fact that India is not unsafe for women. I say this as an Indian woman who travels widely, often alone, all over the country.

And although you have since changed your statement to say that female tourists should only cover up in religious places, I feel I need to make a point, based on previous degrading comments that you and others in positions of power have made.

What is unsafe is the patriarchal mindset which makes Indian men feel that they can violate a woman without any consequences. This is the mindset which we need to address, change and punish. This will not happen by distributing safety kits or discouraging miniskirts.

I understand that by asking women to cover up you wish to protect them. Unfortunately, by restricting a woman, you do not protect her. Instead, you take away her power. This is something which our leadership has failed to understand.

When dress codes are imposed for women in colleges or curfews are laid down in a women’s hostel, we as a nation are simply reinforcing the patriarchy that we desperately need to change.

By restricting a woman we are telling her that she is unsafe rather than empowering her by giving her the physical, mental and emotional security that she deserves.

Instead of restricting women, we should focus on creating the conditions to make them feel safe — instituting law and order, training police, punishing eve-teasing (unwanted advances on a woman), cat-calling, and even offensive staring.

More than anything else, we need to sensitize men and women to each other — and this can only happen when we encourage women and their mini skirts on the streets.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken time and again of his dream of becoming an economically powerful, first-world nation. The most important step towards this goal is ensuring the safety of women outside their homes, so that they too can contribute to driving economic change.

According to IMF Chief Christine Lagarde, India’s economic output could increase as much as 27% if the number of female workers were to increase the same level as the number of men.

But women will not leave their homes if they do not feel safe, and they will not feel safe if our leaders promote a culture of misogyny.

Recent inappropriate comments have included: «When Bharat (India) becomes India with the influence of western culture, these types of incidents happen,» Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the right-wing nationalist RSS party, said about sexual violence.

Vibha Rao, female chair of the Chattisgarh State Women Commission, said: «Women are equally responsible for crimes committed against them.

Dr Sharma, instead of adding to this culture of misogyny, why not add to the culture of change? Instead of distributing safety kits, asking women to change what they wear, why not work on changing the mindsets of our people?

It is possible to create an India which is safe for women. Places like Shillong teach us that. We need to encourage women to exercise their freedom, rather than discouraging them for the sake of their «protection.» In this endeavor, we need our leadership to support us more than ever before.

Yours sincerely,

Ira Trivedi

Ira Trivedi is an Indian columnist and author of six books including India in love: Marriage and sexuality in the 21st century. She has written an open letter for CNN to India’s tourism minister, Mahesh Sharma, following his advice to female tourists to not wear skirts in India. All views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

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