Goa's tourism boss links sexual assaults to bikinis

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. (Opinion: Goa is no rape capital)

“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.