India has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to safety for women and girls. Often travellers are scared off visiting by the many news stories which cover some of the shocking truths about India’s culture, from frequent sexual assaults to constant caste and religious based violence. After the brutal rape and murder of a local 23-year old medical student on a night bus in Delhi 2012, as well as a string of sexual assaults of Foreigners in 2014, much of the world labelled India a suicide mission for solo female travellers. While there are certainly truths to India reputation which must be acknowledged, I do believe it is possible to safely navigate this country and have a great time doing so!
My experience in India has felt no more dangerous than my time in other developing countries. I have honestly had such a calm and peaceful journey around this country, so I would hate for other women to be held back by fear. However, many women I met travelling did run into a bit of trouble, namely unwanted sexual advances and assaults. There are certain situations unique to India and Asia which can cause confusion and potentially lead to harm.
If you are planning a trip to Mother India, here is a run-down of some of these said situations to be sensitive towards for a safe and peaceful journey.
Staring in India is BIG. For some travellers it can be quite overwhelming having all those eyes on you all the time. This is not unique to women, foreign men get stared at a lot too. It’s mostly curiosity and completely safe. Personally, I feel I stare at the locals more than they stare at me. They are all so gorgeous and colourful it’s hard to look away! If you feel the situation becomes inappropriate you can shoo the starer away with a hand gesture and an evil eye.
Many people come to India knowing that as a woman, you will be expected to dress modestly. As with many cultures, it is common for women to cover their shoulders and legs. This custom stems from religious and cultural traditions, which one needs to be aware of when travelling to a new country. However, as a feminist I do take issue with participating in customs which stem from repressing women’s bodies as a punishment for possible sexual stimulation of males. I refuse to live in a mans world in 2016.
So, while I don’t roam around in short-shorts and boob-tubes, I have been known to wear a tank top in cities and urban areas where modern culture has caught up with the empowerment of women. This isn’t a lack of respect, or even a judgement on women who cover up for reasons outside of male forced oppression, such as the practical nature of long, breathable cotton clothing to cover your skin from the sun in the hot climate of India. What I wear is a personal decision based on what is practical and comfortable for me to wear, as well as a desire to be a part of the changing culture of India towards women. What you wear never gives anyone the right to touch you without consent. Simple.
If I am travelling overnight, to rural areas or attending a religious site or event – I will dress more modestly. This is based on safety, avoiding unwanted attention and being allowed to participate in social events. I have also bought a bunch of Indian clothing on my travels such as Saris and Kurtas, which are great for weddings and temples.
Drinking is not a huge part of traditional Indian culture. With a mostly Hindu and Muslim population, consumption of alcohol is frowned upon in many families. A few cities in the North are Holy such as Rishikesh and Pushkar, which have a legal ban on alcohol. India is definitely not the place to party hard and get visibility intoxicated in public, especially not on the streets. Male or female, you will stand out and become more vulnerable to crimes.
Certain parts of India, such as Goa, are your go-to drinking zones within what is a pretty dry country. These are also the locals go-to drinking spot. During holidays such as New Years, the volume of local men is HUGE. While it’s totally fine and fun to party with the locals, be cautious of becoming lost in a crowd of just local men. Also, a little heads up – most Indians cannot handle their liquor (I’ve got Irish and Russian blood in me, I can say this). Women who spent time in Goa over New Year literally had to spend most their night punching off men who got too handsey.
*No not all local men. I have many Indian male friends from my travels who are more mannered and respectful than mates I have back home. It just depends on how they were raised and their education. Many Indians are not educated and just get over excited.
Scooters and Motorbikes
Riding a scooter or motorcycle around India is a very typical method of transport for locals and foreigners alike. However, in some instances, as you have a means of exploring more of place, you may notice a bit more attention in the outskirts of tourist areas. Most of this is harmless curiosity, however, particularly in Hampi, girls reported being targeted by groups of young boys on bikes who often waited on quiet streets to harass or assault women alone on bikes. My advice is just to always check in on your surroundings and make sure you’re not too far off the beaten track alone, take a friend! Also, I have a rule not to lower my safety standards when I travel. I wouldn’t jump on a motocycle with an unlicensed driver and speed around town back home, so I’m not going to do it abroad. This might be a bit more strict than most travellers, but accidents happen very regularly and I’d rather not take the risk.
You will be asked for a million selfies from locals on your travels. Sometimes families, or sometimes groups of young men. Many travellers have mixed feelings about this one, as the intention of some men in taking these photos isn’t always so innocent. I have denied groups or individual men photos, and caught out a few taking sneaky photos of me as well. I think it’s mostly cheeky and not particularly harmful, but just read the situation and know you can always just so no.
Do not let the rickshaw driver pick-up another person. Often another local will get in their rickshaw who they claim to be their brother or best friend. Be firm, say ‘driver only’. Get out of the rickshaw if they refuse. Again, it’s just power in numbers.
Use The Buddy System
India is a huge country, so expect to take many, many overnight train or bus journeys. This was my biggest fear coming into the country, travelling alone at night on pubic transport. However, now that India has finally caught onto the idea of hostels, with most I stayed in just over a year or two old, meeting fellow travellers is now very easy in India. Without effort, I was able to never travel alone overnight. There is usually someone headed in the same direction as you or someone you like enough to join their journey. Many people do travel solo on trains and buses and are totally fine, this was just a personal preference.
Be Prepared for Bluntness
Locals who know little English and have even less manners will very bluntly say profane things to you on the street. Anything from just coming up to you and straight up asking for sex, to making vulgar comments. If and when this happens, make sure to tell them off and if it’s really offensive, you can cause a bit of a scene. Locals will defend you.
Know what Eve Teasing is and How To React
This is important. Eve Teasing is a term used to describe public sexual assault and harassment towards women in Asia. It’s a very odd phenomenon, and one that I did not know of before I travelled to Nepal a few years ago, but really wish I did. People prey on foreign women, thinking they will be too confused and timid to react to the situation.
Eve Teasing can range from someone yelling something offensive at you, someone grabbing your boob from a motorcycle or on a busy street to more aggressive attacks. One of the big things is rubbing their elbow on your boobs on crowded buses or trains. It’s super weird and hard to even get your head around what is happening until it escalates and becomes obvious! If ANYTHING like this happens, CAUSE A SCENE. Yell at the perpetrator, slap them away, and get the attention of others. Most Indians will come to your rescue and make sure the person is punished. You can also take a photo of them and let them know you are reporting them to the police. Luckily, India has recognised this phenomenon and any persons who harass women can be charged with Eve Teasing.
It’s a difficult position to be in, being conscious of India’s very real and regular gender based violence, whilst living in such a positive experience of this country as a woman. I’m very aware not to cause offense to the people of this country who have shown me nothing but kindness and compassion. I have had men, boys, women and children help me so much along the way, going well out of their way to make sure I feel comfortable in their country. The local people are aware of the fears female travellers have, so more often than not, you’ll have strangers supporting you to make sense of things along the way.
If you have any questions about solo female travel to India, please just ask below in the comments and I will be more than happy to help.