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Home > Women’s Rights > India: Rape, blame and the tourism industry in Goa

India: Rape, blame and the tourism industry in Goa

by Eric Randolph, 27 December 2009

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The Guardian, 27 December 2009

Rape, blame and the tourism game

In Goa, a local politician has implied rape victims are to blame for assaults, exploiting concern about the impact of tourism

by Eric Randolph

When I was talking to a well-established journalist friend in Mumbai the other day, he ran through what stories one might expect from different regions in India. Mumbai was good for business stories; Delhi for political and military goings-on; the northeast for insurgencies and corruption. As for Goa, there were rape stories and ... he paused ... "No, that’s it. Goa is rape stories."

Despite the air of facetiousness, he was not joking, and the Goan government is acutely aware of this emerging image crisis. There is the unresolved murder of UK schoolgirl Scarlett Keeling in February 2008, the alleged rape of a 14-year-old German girl in October 2008, and in the last month the claims by a 25-year-old Russian woman that she was raped by a well-known politician.

For a state so dependent on tourism, these stories are bad for business. Earlier this month, the state tourism minister voiced his fears that Goa may soon "gain a reputation as the rape capital of India", with a police force that is "either grossly incompetent or influenced by other factors".

Of course, three incidents do not create a "rape capital" in a country that records more than 20,000 rapes a year (only a fraction of the real number), but in the tourism game, perceptions are everything.

If the minister had hoped his words would stir his fellow officers to action, he had not counted on the actions of one Goa politician, Shantaram Naik, who stood up before India’s upper house in Delhi on 15 December to declare that cases in which women hang around with strangers after midnight "are to be treated on different footings". In doing so, Naik triggered an international row, with the Russian consulate writing a stinging letter of rebuke to the Indian government and threatening a curfew for its citizens in Goa.

Naik’s suggestion that the victim is somehow to blame is depressingly familiar, the most famous example being the comments by Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric in 2006 when he compared rape victims to "uncovered meat" that young men could not help but sexually assault. Such attitudes are embedded in legal systems in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, where rape victims risk adultery charges if they come forward, and at a less conspicuous level the world over as the residue of long-established structures of patriarchal domination.

Despite their familiarity, it is always worth deconstructing such attitudes afresh. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues in his recent book, Violence, such reasoning implies that men are entirely helpless in the face of sexual temptation and cannot be blamed for their ravenous instincts. Inadvertently, this gives far too much credit to western society by suggesting that its open attitudes to female eroticism are only made possible by the development of hitherto unknown levels of restraint, that western men have somehow evolved past the primitive state of males in more conservative societies. Otherwise, the nightclubs of Paris and London and New York would be home to apocalyptic scenes of endless, unstoppable sexual assaults.

In reality, the urge to rape is not some essential characteristic of the male ego. The vast majority of cases happen between people who already know each other, and are the result of complex dynamics within those personal relationships, coloured by embedded, but changeable, cultural structures and triggered by individual humiliations, insecurities and social pressure. Setting aside cases when rape is used as an instrument of war or ethnic cleansing, rape tends to be the most intensely personal of crimes.

That subjective core to the act is what permits a manipulation of the facts by the accused, and yet there is also a core of the incident – the trauma experienced by the victim – that is purely objective. The fraught task for the judicial system is to unpick the subjective account of the specific circumstances of a case from the objective trauma felt by the victim.

That Naik or others feel this highly delicate task can be pre-judged by reference to general cultural trends is not just an act of ignorance, but one which seeks to render the victim’s trauma irrelevant. There is a wider evil in Naik’s words, however, in his willingness to instrumentalise these incidents for his own agenda, to transform something intensely private into something political.

The message that seeps in between the lines of his ludicrous comments is a mantra increasingly heard from populists across India – one of suspicion towards outsiders, of cultures under threat, of the need to harden ethnic and linguistic boundaries.

Such messages find particularly fertile ground in times of uncertainty. Long an unspoiled hippie paradise, over the last two decades Goa has seen large-scale development along its coastline, attracting increasing numbers of workers from India’s poorer states. As with tourist hubs the world over, outside influences breed tensions. Amid a global downturn, which has led to half-empty hotels in peak season, these tensions rise to the surface in the form of groups such as the Movement for a Special Status, formed in 2008 to call for a limit on the number of internal migrants to the state.

Such groups reflect a realisation that tourism has made the state vulnerable, fostering corrupt collusion between developers and powerbrokers that threatens Goa’s natural beauty and risks creating a level of supply that tourist demand cannot always meet. Populist politicians exploit these uncertainties by giving the impression that outside cultures and alien values are somehow damaging Goa’s reputation.

It is in this context that the rape of a girl can be transformed into the rape of a state. Naik tapped into a vein of concern about Goa’s future that represented both a heartless disregard for the victims and an archetypal political sleight of hand. He was not speaking to parliament, still less the international community; he was speaking to the constituency back home, but in doing so he gave a platform to deeply unhealthy views on sexual assault. Through such naked politicking are ignorance and bigotry perpetuated.