Groped, grabbed, followed, leered at and continually harassed. That’s the experience of many Western women travelling solo in India and why they shouldn’t go there alone, Georgia Arlott wrote in London’s The Telegraph.
“In Tamil Nadu, we decided to go swimming at a popular beach. We knew women were fully clothed in the water, and dutifully presented ourselves, as usual, in T-shirts and full-length trousers. The beach was crowded with young men in swimming trunks soaking up the sun and chatting. A few older Indian women waded in the shallows in saris. We were greeted with the stares that all Westerners come to ignore, and we did just that.
“As we swam into open water, we became aware we had been followed in by at least 10 young men. Before we knew what had hit us, hands were everywhere. We screamed, and they darted nimbly away. A friend caught one of the boys and dealt him a sharp smack across the face as we rushed back to the beach. I can honestly say that the experience counts among the most frightening 10 minutes of my life.”
Georgia went on to say the cause of foreign women isn’t helped by the mental link established between white females and the pornography freely enjoyed via the internet.
“India simply is not safe for unaccompanied women. We were told as much very often by older, educated Indian men. With a disbelieving shake of the head, they offered to pay for taxis to help us cross a city that they would not allow their daughters out alone in.”
The article was prompted by the recent fate of the 23-year-old Indian woman on a Delhi bus – gang-raped and dying of her injuries. Six males are standing trial charged with her murder – five in an adult court and one in a juvenile court.
The article was reprinted in Australia’s Fairfax Media and drew 333 mostly outraged comments, including some travellers with lurid stories of their own. A travel journalist then replied, saying she had travelled alone and had had no problems.
I’ve been to India twice, both times travelling in mixed groups which seemed to be the safest option for shopping, nightclubbing and sightseeing. I wandered around historical sites on my own, but they’re unlikely places to be accosted. I also went shopping (in malls) by myself and they were entirely normal retail therapy sessions. I wore long pants and long sleeves or a kurta most of the time, and often a scarf, mindful that modest dressing showed respect and could deflect attention. If you’re blonde, blue-eyed and a whole lot younger than me, that might not be enough in crowded streets and on public transport.
Walking alone on the street was a mixed bag. In Mumbai, near the Gateway to India and on the way to downtown Leopold’s Cafe, I felt like sticky fly paper or a magnet for beggars, and men stepped boldly into my path, trying to grab my sleeve or shove their wares into my face. I swatted them off, much as one would flies, said “NO” very loudly or made no eye contact and totally ignored them, walking quickly and purposefully. A confident way of walking helped, I think. If I’d dawdled or looked hesitant, I would have been more vulnerable. Hawkers and beggars can be particularly aggressive.
In Delhi I was momentarily separated from my group and a man with badly ulcerated legs grabbed at my clothes. I almost stumbled, but my guide Shailendra stepped in and whisked me out of there. I wasn’t angry, I just felt sorry for the beggar. Poverty makes people utterly desperate.
Not long ago friend told me her daughter, aged in her early 20s was considering travelling alone on a train from Kolkata to somewhere. I blanched and said hmm, not a good idea. And if you think India is a tough place for women to travel: According to a 2008 report by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, 83% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, and the problem is exacerbated by a failure to prosecute the perpetrators.
Don’t let the recent horror put you off exploring the complexities of India, but be really careful, travel with companions and if in doubt, don’t go anywhere alone.