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05/02/2013

Asian bank to delegates: Be careful what you wear in India

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A young woman in Mumbai, one of many in urban India who are challenging the country's deeply entrenched traditions. (Rick Westhead/Toronto Star.)

 

Note to delegates attending the Asian Development Bank's annual meeting in New Delhi: Leave your shorts and revealing clothes at home.

Amid a flurry of media coverage of sexual assauts across India, including a notable case in December in which a 23-year-old university student was gang-raped and later died in New Delhi, the ABD is warning visitors who arrive in India for its conference to be mindful of what they wear.

As many as 5,000 delegates from 67 different countries are expected to attend the four-day ADB meeting outside New Delhi, which begins today.

“Indians are very conservative about dress,” said the bank’s website in its guidelines on dressing appropriately in the capital city of India. It further advised women to “dress modestly, with legs covered.” Additionally, it said that shorts and short skirts are “offensive to many.”

For more suggestions on what not to wear in India, the bank’s website redirected readers to a travel website called TravelIndia.com. The website’s promise of providing a “wealth of information” for the “demanding and discerning traveler” includes suggestions on how to dress suitably in India.

“Staying well groomed and dressing ‘respectably’ vastly improves the impression you make on local people, and reduces sexual harassment too,” it says.

An ADB spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal's Aditi Malhotra that the bank  removed the link to the travel website, which was “inadvertently included.” The ADB spokesperson said the link was to provide information for delegates who “aren’t familiar with India.”

The ADB note highlights the paradox of modern India. While modesty and submission to males have been the norm for most Indian women, there is a new openness about sexuality throughout urban India and frankness about social mores has become a staple of the Indian media, particularly television.

TV commercials show women holding and drinking from soft-drink bottles in sexually suggestive ways while local newspapers, in a move that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, feature pictures of female models in full-page ads for condoms. It's an issue I wrote about in 2009 while covering India as the Star's South Asian correspondent.

In the New Delhi gang-rape case, five men were charged but denied wrongdoing, and their trial is under way in Delhi. One of the five hanged himself in his Delhi jail cell. The case has stoked outrage and protests throughout India.

RELATED: 5-year-old rape victim dies in India; two men arrested

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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Cue "Slut walk" protesters.

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