India’s federal cultural and tourism minister has advised foreign women tourists visiting the country against wearing skirts and other “skimpy” clothes, to ensure their safety.
He also said they should refrain from going out at night.
"For their own safety, women foreign visitors should not wear short dresses and skirts. Indian culture is different from western culture," Mahesh Sharma said on Sunday in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal.
This advisory would be part of the “welcome kit” brochure being prepared for visitors ahead of India’s tourist season, October to March. The kit cautions visitors about smaller towns and villages, which still have traditional styles of dressing, especially for religious places, and where people frown on revealing skirts.
"Do find out about local customs and traditions from the tourism office or concerned authorities while visiting such places," states Tips for Travelling in India.
But after Mr Sharma’s remarks triggered public and social media outrage, the minister tried to play down his comments. “I have not given any specific instructions regarding what they [female tourists] should wear or not wear,” he said. The ministry was not trying to impose a dress code, but was only asking foreigners to take precautions while going out at night, he added. “I am simply concerned,” he said.
Opposition parties and women activists criticised Mr Sharma’s remarks. “Women had greater freedom to wear clothes of their choice in Vedic times than they have in [prime minister Narendra] Modi’s times” tweeted Delhi’s chief minster
, referring to ancient India.
"These visitors are coming from more orderly countries than India," said Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research, a women's advocacy group. "By issuing such instructions, we are merely telling foreigners that they are visiting India at their own peril; that it is not a safe country for women," she added.
“The minister is adding insult to injury. It is also a shameless admission of failure to provide security to foreign [female] tourists”, tweeted Raghunana Rao, while another user said that India needed to “ban such conservative ministers, not skirts”.
Mr Sharma had previously stoked a similar sexism controversy by declaring that a woman going out after dark was against Indian culture.
“Girls wanting a night out may be all right elsewhere. But this is not a part of our [Indian] culture,” he said.