Opinion: Goa is no rape capital

GOA, India — India's smallest state has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The recent rape of a 9-year-old Russian girl in Goa's Morjim village has resonated far beyond the beaches of this former Portuguese colony.

Foreign journalists have picked up a quote here and there, and used the stray incident of rape to create an element of sensation for their story. It is not entirely their fault. They have to do their job. Controversy sells, and Goa tourism officials have certainly provided enough fodder for the news corps.

Micky Pacheco, the provincial minister of tourism, went so far as to call Goa the "rape capital" of India.

More damage was done by the deputy director of tourism, Pamela Mascarenhas, who told New Delhi's Mail Today newspaper: "You can't blame the locals [for acts of sexual violence toward foreign tourists]; 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."

To call Goa a rape capital, as Pacheco did after one particularly horrible act, is going too far. Moreover, to say that rape occurs because of what someone is wearing is woefully misguided.

I am a native Goan, and for me the place still retains its old charm, despite the vices of tourism. The real Goa thrives in the villages, where the rich cultural heritage is on display. Folk songs, dances (fugdi), music, dramas (tiatrs), visual arts and stories are the key to the true Goan experience.

In many ways, Goa is a progressive state. Daughters are treated better than they are elsewhere in India, and women play prominent social and economic roles.

The "free love" beaches, which gained notoriety among hippies in the 1960s and 1970s as places where drugs are rampant and anything goes, are, truth be told, limited to only a few, isolated areas. Referring to all of Goa as a "free love" zone where questionable acts go unaccounted for is an insult to the entire Goan society.

Admittedly, Anjuna and Vagator beaches in North Goa and Palolem beach in South Goa are known for nudity, and the odd foreign tourist strolling without a speck of clothes on can be seen on almost every beach in Goa, even though the law forbids nudity.

Notice boards announce this law to the world and warn of penal action. But, that is only on paper. I haven't heard of anyone arrested for nudity. Who has the guts to the do it? Tourism is king of the land and sea, of the sand and surf.

Goa's heart and soul is distinct from these so-called "free love" beaches, but their growing influence threatens a way of life.

Hordes of local tourists come to Goa from neighboring states to ogle at the scantily clad and naked foreigners. Coastal village children drop out of school and end up drug pushers or addicts after becoming involved with the beach party scene. These are side effects of tourism-related vices.

Many Goans want to steer clear of these beaches. A Goan planning a family beach vacation does his homework before taking off, in order to avoid the nudists and the party scene.

Western permissiveness is a problem that threatens a culture. It can easily be misinterpreted by locals and Indians from other states; it may have even led to some stray incidents of sexual assault. But rape has nothing to do with how a victim is dressed.

After Mascarenhas commented on what foreigners wear, there has been much discussion of a "bikini ban" that would limit how much skin a foreigner is allowed to show. This proposed ban will have no effect on problems of sexual misconduct because whether or not someone is dressed in a bikini is not the reason she is raped.

Rape is a crime of power, control and dominion over another. It happens everywhere in the world, and everywhere in the world where it happens it is a heinous act.

Armstrong Vaz has been a journalist in Goa for the last 20 years, having worked for different Indian newspapers including the Herald, Navhind Times and Gomantak Times. He covers tourism and sports.