A shocking case provokes outrage. The local government blames swimwear.
By Jason Overdorf
Published: February 1, 2010
NEW DELHI, India Once upon a time, the beaches of Goa were known
for free love. But as a string of high-profile sexual assaults on
tourists culminated in the alleged rape of a 9-year-old Russian girl
last week, the idyllic strip of sand along the Arabian Sea is fast
gaining a fearful reputation.
The answer? According to the state's ministry of tourism, those cute
pre-teens in two-pieces are asking for it.
"You can't blame the locals; they have never seen such women. Foreign
tourists must maintain a certain degree of modesty in their clothing.
Walking on the beaches half-naked is bound to titillate the senses,"
New Delhi's Mail Today newspaper quoted Pamela Mascarhenas, Goa's
deputy director of tourism, as saying Friday.
GlobalPost could not reach Mascarhenas for comment. But a spokesman
for the Goa tourism department confirmed that far from marking a
departure from official policy the official's remark echoed
previous statements by the tourism minister himself.
"I have not talked to her [Mascarhenas] on this issue directly," said
Swapnil Naik, director of the Goa tourism department. "But I think
that sentiment has also been echoed by our minister in one or two
statements. There is a degree of cultural shock for our native
population when they see certain type of dressing."
Goa has been on the boil since Jan. 28, when a 9-year-old Russian
girl was allegedly raped by two Indian men. Following close on the
heels of the alleged rape and murder of Scarlett Keeling, a British
teenager, in 2008, the incident sparked an immediate media feeding
frenzy, as local TV channels broadcast interviews with the victim's
mother and the 9-year-old girl herself. The ongoing story culminated
Jan. 30 with a scare headline reading, "No Bikinis On Goa Beaches."
Naik said that there is no plan to ban bikinis. "It's totally false,"
he said. "There was no such statement made."
Earlier in January, Goa Tourism Minister Francisco Pacheco announced
that the government would no longer feature women in bikinis in its
advertisements. The state has not barred other tourism organizations
for promoting fun in the sun, and it has not yet made any noises
about imposing a dress code on the state's revelers.
But weeks before Mascarhenas' remark, the minister's statement irked
many Indians, who felt it implied that rape victims invite assault by
dressing in particular ways. "Goa is a family holiday destination and
not a sex tourism destination," Pacheco said Jan. 7. "We will make
sure that bikini babes do not symbolize Goa tourism in future."
"In India they still morally land the responsibility on the victim if
the victim is a woman, because of cultural conditioning," said
35-year-old Anurashi Shetty, a resident of Donapaula Goa. "[The
impression is always that] she must have done something to provoke
it. It's a national mindset."
That mindset includes many government servants.
"The general impression that the government felt is going out to the
domestic tourists and others is that Goa is a place where you can
dress whichever way you want, and that may be one of the reasons for
the rape cases and security problems we have been having recently," Naik said.
On Jan. 29, Goa police arrested Aman Bharadwaj, prime suspect in the
alleged rape, in Mumbai. The central government and Goa
administration have reportedly both been under pressure from Russia's
embassy in New Delhi. But the speedy apprehension of a suspect may
not warm diplomatic relations for long as India's glacial court
system grinds down victim and accused alike.
After the incident, the embassy criticized the Goa police for failing
to protect tourists and threatened to recommend that Russians the
second-largest group of visitors to Goa avoid the state in the future.
"We are shocked and deeply outraged by the reports about the
disgusting incident in India's well-known resort in Goa when a
9-year-old child from Russia became another victim of a rapist," the
Russian Embassy said in a statement.
Comments about the way the 9-year-old victim may have been dressed
will not be a balm on Goa's troubled waters.