The reality is that the average Indian woman — many of whom are poor, lower caste or rural — is far more unsafe in our country than any white person. For starters, much of this sexual violence is routine and unreported. When a Swiss tourist is raped in Madhya Pradesh, it makes blaring headlines but the rape of a tribal or Dalit woman or maid may — on a slow news day — get a tiny paragraph tucked away on page 12. No policeman would think of refusing to file an FIR if a foreigner were to arrive at the thana to file a complaint. And unlike the maid or the farm labourer, the average Western woman has the luxury of choosing safer methods and times of travel. Webb complains about stares and comments, whereas Indian women travel in buses where they are routinely groped and grabbed.
We Indians are no less clueless, however, when we react by blaming Western women for their own harassment. A number of Indian friends automatically assume that white female tourists are assaulted because they are too dumb to either cover up or stay safe — and have said so about RoseChasm. My question to them: Would they call the many Indian women who are routinely assaulted dumb, as well? The fact is that any woman who has to take public transportation, walk on the streets (and not just in the nicer parts of town), or even take an auto to get home at night cannot be assured of her own safety. Then there are the countless village women who have to walk miles to get water or to the field who can hardly afford to “stay safe.”
The uglier reality is that while rape may be considered a crime, we live in a culture where sexual harassment is so routine as to be unremarkable. Indian women are so used to the heckling, ogling and grabbing, we accept it as the price of leaving the house. And the privileged among us who preach safety to white women are so accustomed to our home-car-office-restaurant prison that we no longer notice our gilded cage; we are so inured to the head-down-no-eye-contact existence, we view it as “normal”, even “smart” behaviour. Worse, we smugly use this misognystic lakshman rekha as a stick to beat up on tourists who do not abide by its prohibition.
This ugly and entirely abnormal state of affairs is not a “cultural” norm that tourists ought to just lump as price of being in Rome. And let’s not use it to condemn all Indian men as lustful and violent, either. Let’s see it as what it is: the most visible symptom of a society without the rule of law.