New Delhi - Foreign women travelling to India should not wear dresses or skirts and should not walk alone at night “for their own safety”, India's tourism minister has said.
Mahesh Sharma also advised women to take photographs of the number plate of any vehicles they were travelling in.
His remarks have sparked controversy in India, where several high-profile gang rapes and attacks on women in recent years have focused global attention on the problem within the country.
Mr Sharma was speaking about a welcome kit for foreign nationals arriving in India, which have been issued since last year and includes the safety guidelines for women.
He said: “In that kit they are given dos and don'ts. These are very small things like, they should not venture out alone at night in small places, or wear skirts, and they should click the photo of the vehicle number plate whenever they travel and send it to friends.”
“For their own safety, women foreign tourists should not wear short dresses and skirts, he said. “Indian culture is different from the western.”
But he denied his comments amounted to a dress code. He later added: “We have not given any specific instructions regarding what they should wear or not wear. We are asking them to take precaution while going out at night.”
“I am a father of two daughters... I would never tell women what they should wear or not,” Mr Sharma said.
Sentences for rape have been toughened in India in the wake of the international outcry over a number of attacks in the country, but critics have said the government is blaming women and curtailing their freedom rather than punishing the perpetrators of the crimes.
“It was very stupid, not a fully thought-through statement,” Ranjana Kumari, the director of gender equality thinktank the Centre for Social Research, told the Guardian. “The minister doesn't realise the implications of such irresponsible statements.” She said his remarks were part of “the syndrome of blaming women”.
“But the problem is men and boys in India,” she added. “It's important for [Mr Sharma] to have said how to punish the perpetrators of crime and stop the nonsense of ogling women and following them”.
Mr Sharma's comments were described as being “loaded with misogyny”, and “a blatant admission that the Indian state is incapable of ensuring safety and security of women,” by Sreemoy Talukdar of India's FirstPost website.
The number of foreign tourists visiting India increased by 10 percent last year, but the proportion of women coming to the country slipped to 40.8 percent of all visitors, from 41.2 percent the year before.
Mr Sharma also caused controversy in India last year after he said: “Girls wanting a night out may be all right elsewhere, but it is not part of Indian culture.”