You Live Here, Why Not Travel There: The Case for Sustained Female Tourism to India

12 Jun

I traveled to India for the first time in December of 2003 with 21 other students and a few professors.  We spent about 8 weeks learning about sustainability, the economy, tourism, ecology, agriculture.  We spent a good amount of time in the homes of different families who welcomed us with open arms  (well, for the most part).  I returned just after I graduated college in the fall of 2005 with a good friend of mine, Abby, and spent about 4 months traversing the sub-continent.  It was an amazing trip, cut short mostly by the fact that I had run my travel fund dry.  I spent my entire trip in the company of others and the only close-call of a sexual nature came at the hands of a fellow traveler.  I went back for a third time in the summer of 2011 with two of my girlfriends from graduate school, one of whom is fluent in Hindi.  This led to some surprised faces and a pretty awesome night in which the operators of a government bus hand delivered us to our hotel so we wouldn’t have to face tracking down an auto rickshaw after midnight on our own.  I would go back in a heartbeat if I could find a companion and if time and finances allowed.

So I must say I am more than a little saddened by the recent reports that, due to highly publicized sexual assaults in India, tourism has dropped, and especially amongst females.  A June 10th article on the New York Times blog, India Ink entitled “India Scrambles to Reassure Tourists Shaken by Recent Attacks on Women,” discusses the issue.  The article, by Neha Thirani Bagri and Heather Timmons, explains that in the first three months of this year visits by females to India fell by 35%.  Thisfall-off has been linked by many to the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi this past December.  There have also been assaults and rapes reported by tourists over the last few months, including a 30-year-old woman who was gang-raped in a resort town in the north and a 39-year-old Swiss tourist who was raped by four men in Madhya Pradesh.  Listen, I get it, the prospect of being raped or sexually assaulted in a foreign country where you’re not familiar with the language, the customs, or the legal system and where you are far from home and your friends and family is terrifying.  But the thing is that, as a female, I live in almost constant, albeit dull, fear of being sexually assaulted and I think, when pressed, many women would agree.  In fact, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a woman in your life who has been neither threatened with sexual violence nor had sexual violence committed against her.  For my part I have been groped and spit on in the street, been the victim of an attempted rape in my own home, and ran screaming from the house of someone I considered a friend, although not a close one, when my strong and loud repetition of the word “no” went unheard.  My stories are not unique.  And every single one of them happened here, in the United States.

That’s not even the point.  I am not here arguing that there are more rapes in the United States than elsewhere.  I don’t know that we could ever accurately know that given the poor reporting rates at the global level, a fact I have discussed elsewhere in this blog.  Clearly, I have spent more of my life here and so it would follow that most of the bad things that have happened to me also would have happened here.  What I am saying is that the articles covering the decrease in tourism have not done much to reverse this trend by encouraging a more nuanced discussion.  So, here’s my attempt.

As a commenter on an article I read said, India is a very big country, 1,269,219 square miles, with a lot of people living in it, over 1.2 billion according to the 2011 census.  There are places that are more safe and places that are less safe, much like here.  There are people who are likely to rape and people who are unlikely to rape, much like here.  In the Times article, the authors quoted a 24-year-old from San Francisco, Corinne Aparis, as saying “It scares me to think that there’s that type of deep hatred toward women — that just being a woman is enough of a target and reason for some men to inflict such violence on me.”  The thing is, she could be talking about anywhere.  This quote is taken as something specific to the Indian context but that could not be further from the truth.  For evidence of that fact just watch the movie Compliance, read about the Cleveland, Texas gang rape of an 11-year-old, talk to some of your female friends.

You know what is different about India?  The response.  I doubt we would have learned nearly as much about the horrific December Delhi rape if it weren’t for the response of Indians.  According to the Times article once again, “The public outrage over the December attack led to the passage of a new sexual offense law in March that imposes stronger penalties for violence against women and criminalizes actions like stalking and voyeurism.”  I personally do not remember a time in the United States when protesters lined the streets for a day, let alone weeks, in response to a rape and the subsequent handling of the case by authorities.  I do not remember a time in the United States when the national dialogue wasn’t seemingly dominated by the endless repetition of “boys will be boys,” “why was she out at that time wearing that outfit,” and “where was her mother?”  Let’s just think back to the recent events in Steubenville.  Just this past Thursday, on June 6th, Mother Jones printed an article that reported that where the two rapists in the Steubenville case got a 1-and-2-year prison sentence, one of the hackers who broke the case open is facing up to 10-years in jail for hacking-related crimes.  To me, that says a lot about this country’s priorities.

Listen, I am not saying that people’s feelings regarding safety when traveling are unjustified.  If you feel unsafe for any reason, that is your prerogative.  What I am saying is that let’s put this into a larger context.  This is not an India problem, this is an everywhere problem.  But I would go so far as to say that the Indian population at large, at least recently, has a much more proactive attitude towards securing safety from sexual violence for women and men, and towards ensuring the proper handling of sexual assault cases.  We should be so vociferous.  Rather than write India off as unsafe for women, we should follow in the population’s footsteps.  We should stand in support of sexual assault victims, try to get our justice system to do right by them, by us, and change our rape culture.

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