Dressing to insult

How not to dress in an Indian village

How not to dress in an Indian village. It’s the equivalent of popping to your local supermarket in your bra and knickers.

Why do people bother spending time and money to visit countries with customs and social norms that are different from theirs, and then try to impose their social norms on those people? Isn’t that contributing to the destruction of the very thing they’ve made such an effort to experience?

I’m talking about people, mainly women but occasionally men, who blatantly ignore local norms of dress. Women who wander through Laotion villages in tiny shorts and shoestring vests, with most of their bras on show*. Men who walk down the high street of a Balinese country town in surf shorts and no shirt. On one occasion I saw a girl hop off her scooter to buy fruit from a stall in an (inland) Goan village wearing only a tiny bikini.

Most of the time local people are too polite to say anything, but if you’re observant you will see the glances that they exchange with each other. In the case of the girl in Goa two village men nearby were quietly but angrily discussing her. She was oblivious – or didn’t care. I joined the discussion, expressing my agreement. These men weren’t misogynists or prudes or uneducated. They had no objections to beachwear on the beach. They just felt that she was showing contempt for them by wearing it in their village.

The thing is, I seriously doubt whether this girl would stroll around a village in her own country (Russia I think) in a bikini. You just don’t, even where the culture doesn’t specifically frown on skimpy clothing. So just because she’s on holiday, the whole country is suddenly her personal resort to do as she likes? No – it’s rude, it’s disrespectful, and it gives the rest of us travellers a bad name. If you are visiting someone else’s country you should do them the courtesy of abiding by their standards of dress and behaviour, or at least making an effort to. If that’s too uncomfortable or inconvenient for you, don’t go – nobody’s forcing you. But to decide that you just don’t care and will dress how you please is a form of cultural imperialism.

The authorities on Langkawi in Malaysia are talking about making it an offence to wander the streets in beachwear. I hope they succeed, and I hope other places follow suit. If it deters tourists, then they were the kind of tourists they’re better off without anyway.

* Seriously, why do they do this anywhere – it looks so tacky and unattractive. Have they no mirrors?

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