Trouble in paradise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2008, 12:00am

Life is pretty good for the tanned tourists lolling on the golden sands of Aswem, a palm-fringed beach near Calangute, in north Goa. The sea is cerulean blue. A frangipani-scented breeze tempers the hot sunshine. Waiters dart about, serving ice-cold beer and huge plates of fresh fish - all for the price of a single train journey in other parts of the world.

But in one corner of the beach, a group of young women in bikinis are talking in sombre tones. In January, not far from the beach, a British woman was raped after accepting a lift home on a motorbike following an evening concert. Hopping on a stranger's bike is not unusual in free-and-easy, sociable Goa, where taxi bikes are common. But the young women say they are now more careful about how they get back to their hotels after a day on the beach.

'I'm very careful about where I go and when,' said Sarah Webster, a 31-year-old tourist in Calangute. 'And I'm very careful how I dress, too. You see so many topless women on the beach here, which seems unnecessarily rude and provocative in a country like India.'

She said there was never any excuse for sexual abuse, but that women should attempt to protect themselves from unwanted attention by following guidebooks' suggestions that they wear loose, long clothes, especially in densely populated areas.

India has always been regarded as a comparatively safe destination for women travellers, but in the first few weeks of this year, an apparent upsurge in attacks against female tourists has harmed India's image. The year began badly. On New Year's Eve, as two American women of Indian origin left a party at a swanky hotel in Mumbai with their husbands, they were surrounded by dozens of men who taunted and groped them, pulling their clothes.

A photographer who happened to be nearby recorded the incident in a shocking series of photographs that were splashed across the newspapers the following day.

January saw a succession of nasty sexual crimes. A French woman told police that she had been raped in Pushkar, a pilgrimage town in Rajasthan. In Udaipur, also in Rajasthan, a British woman was raped by the manager of the hotel in which she was staying. An American visitor said she was groped by a Hindu priest in another part of the state. And two young Canadian girls and their family cut their holiday short after the girls were molested by the security guard of a hotel in Kumarakom, Kerala.

Then three weeks ago in Anjuna, Goa, the naked body of British teenager Scarlett Keeling was discovered on the beach, with police claiming she had drowned despite assertions by her mother that she had been raped and murdered. An initial autopsy supported but a second autopsy has concluded that the 15-year-old had been murdered.

The first autopsy found only five bruises on Keeling's body, but the second examination discovered as many as 50, with at least half of them believed to have been inflicted before she died.

There is reportedly one witness - a British tourist apparently too scared to talk to the police - who told a friend he saw Keeling being sexually assaulted behind a bar.

For India's tourist officials, the attacks constitute unprecedented bad news. Up to five million tourists visit India every year. Last year, they brought the country more than US$12 billion. In places such as Goa, where tourism is the pillar of the economy, the attacks and the publicity they have generated have caused great concern.

In late January, tourism officials gathered in Delhi to discuss the safety of tourists and new measures to tackle violence in tourist hot spots. Plans mooted include the deployment of thousands of retired defence personnel in tourist areas and the introduction of special tourist police.

The meeting showed how shocked Indian officialdom was by the violence. But there are more serious issues at stake than tourism.

The spate of attacks on female tourists coincided with India's latest crime figures, which showed the number of reported rapes in the country has continued to rise - by nearly 700 per cent since records began in 1971. In the same period, other serious crimes, from murder to robbery, have fallen 16 per cent.

India's National Crime Records revealed there were an average of 53 rapes per day in 2006, or 19,348 cases that year.

But these are only the cases that are reported. NGOs say the real figure is far higher because many Indian women are still reluctant to report rape to the police. Some social commentators say the number of rapes in India appears to be on the rise because more women are telling the police when they are attacked. But that does not explain the apparent surge of attacks on tourists in India.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that other, less serious, forms of sexual harassment are increasing.

Every young female visitor to the country has been on the receiving end of the behaviour known locally as 'eve-teasing' - sexual harassment that ranges from aggressive heckling to ogling and groping. A ubiquitous poster advertisement showing a young woman practising yoga on a secluded beach, part of a campaign to attract tourists to 'Incredible India', elicits scoffs from women who have travelled in the country.

'There's definitely been a big rise in sexual harassment,' said Mohammed Ghalib Hussain, a professor of psychology at Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi. 'It's very dramatic - since I first did research on the topic in the 1970s, the situation has changed completely.'

He said sexual harassment was rarer in the eastern part of the country, and most common in Delhi and central India - areas that had seen the greatest increase in wealth, modernisation, 'and a loss of values'.

A recent survey by the Hindustan Times newspaper revealed disturbing attitudes among many 'modern' Indian males.

The poll of 500 middle-class men between the ages of 20 and 45 found that 46 per cent considered women to be 'asking for trouble' by going out to a bar with friends. Four out of five said they had at one time or other been among a group that made lewd comments at women. Less disturbingly but perhaps more revealingly, nearly 60 per cent said they preferred stay-at-home wives.

While India modernises at breakneck speed, its social mores lag behind. Indian society remains largely conservative and, in most circles, deeply chauvinistic. India's dowry system - in which a bride's family pays the groom for marrying her - has been outlawed but is still pervasive.

At the same time, Indians are exposed more than ever before to the media outputs of more modern, liberal societies, from explicit films to sexually charged advertisements. More and more Indian movies are mimicking the overtly sexual performances of films made in the west.

The mixture of naked, sexually liberated portrayals of women and chauvinistic views can be dangerous.

Shaibal Gupta, a social scientist from the Asian Development Research Institute in Bihar, said there was a connection between cosmopolitanism and sexual harassment. 'There's no question that many Indian men think foreign women are easily available,' he said.

A woman raped in Goa told the BBC she believed her attacker had been influenced by portrayals of women in popular culture.

'There's such wide access to multimedia Bollywood fantasy,' she said. 'In fact, without wanting to go into detail about it, my attack bore all the hallmarks of someone trying to act out a fantasy.

'I'm not a typical tourist. But would it be less shocking if I'd been dancing at a full-moon party on one of the tourist beaches half dressed? In that sense is there an inevitability about it? No.'