Is it safe for women travelling solo in India?

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.

Indians and tourists exploring the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra

“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 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. Since then, other cases have been reported, including one of a Swiss couple who were bicycling around India and had camped on the side of the road. The man was tied up and beaten and his wife gang raped. Other equally as horrendous crimes are committed against very young Indian girls have since been in the headlines.

Tourists in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Tourists enjoying the sights in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Arlott’s 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.

 

Comments

  1. Georgia Gerardis says

    Oh for God’s sake! I can’t stand greedy men. How annoying! The same thing happens in many places around the world and thank God greek ‘kamakia’ (=spearmen? haha) as we called them, do no longer exist. I know it’s even worse in Tunisia, especially if you are blonde. My really heavy loaded aunt got followed and pinched on her huge bottom many times. The funny thing was that I think she felt quite flattered in the end haha!

  2. Olive Tree says

    This is a tricky issue. It’s rife in the Middle East, used to be prevalent in Greece, still plagues Turkey, and India is another dimension altogether. I read a book about a woman who WALKED across the Sahara with camels and guides and did OK, starting from Morocco which is fiendish for women.

  3. Ariane Tatas says

    I was absolutely shocked to hear about the latest violence against women in India. I guess, if this had happened before my own travels there, I might have canceled my plans out of fear. I actually only accidentally ended up as a solo traveller in India. I came to India because I wanted to work as a volunteer in an orphanage in Bangalore (and considered travelling the country only in case I found travel mates at the project). Unfortunately I was told too late, i.e. when I was already in the country, that suddenly they didn’t need me. But although I wasn’t happy about travelling alone at all, I had a good time. I wouldn’t recommend it though for a girl’s gap year after high-school or women who haven’t travelled similar countries yet, just because – in critical moments – it’s really much or all about appearing confident and strong in order to get rid of obtrusive men. You definitely need to be careful and respect women’s dress code. Don’t book the cheapest transport and accommodation. Make sure you are going to be safe, that your hotel is in a decent area and that you don’t walk around when it is getting dark. When you aren’t sure, ask hotel reception for a general assessment of the situation. You will be surprised! And take warnings seriously because, in general, hotel staff might downplay things (of course they don’t want you to panic and run away). In my opinion your holidays in India will definitely be more enjoyable if you are not alone, or ideally have a male travel mate, especially if you want to enjoy some Indian nightlife. You will need to get used to a lot of staring, questions about your marital status and PLEASE when people ask you if it is the first time you are in India, say NO, because they will either try to bring you in a strange situation or rip you off. I was a bit surprised that Georgia Arlott wrote in London’s The Telegraph she decided to sleep at the house of Indian friends that she just made on her holidays. This can bring you in unpleasant situations at home, so don’t do it in a country like India! You need to use your common sense and try to understand the mentality and culture of the people living there. I had two occasions when I really felt insecure: First on a night bus from Mumbai to Aurangabad and second on a 35-hour train ride from New Delhi to Bangalore. Both times I booked with a travel agent first class and a female compartment and both times I ended up in compartments with only men (and on the train in class 3 instead of 1). I guess it’s more recommendable to book your ticket yourself at the train station to make sure you get what you pay for. On the bus I was lucky that, totally by chance, three Greek travellers had booked the beds directly next to mine. Indians later told me they never take public buses and I should have never touched any open food or drinks on the train (but everything they served was unsealed). Altogether I would say India is definitely a place worth going and most people are very friendly and helpful. You will make the most out of it though if you are NOT travelling alone. You will be way more flexible. But still you should always be mindful of the differences in mentality and culture and respect them. You are the guest in this country. Wear a kurta or acceptable clothes, be serious and confident, use your common sense and put your flirting habits aside in a country where respectable women don’t look into strangers’ eyes. Keeping these things in mind, you should at least be on the safer side!

  4. Robyn's Nest says

    Hw about this. It’s not only India. I read this today on the news.

    An Australian tourist has been dragged into an alley and raped after leaving an exclusive nightclub in New York City, US police say. The 20-year-old Victorian woman was attempting to head back to her hotel when a man grabbed her from behind and dragged her into an alley near the intersection of Madison Avenue and East 58th Street early on Sunday morning. The woman had been partying at the exclusive Lavo nightclub, a favorite among supermodels and stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Gerard Butler, on the night of the attack, according to the New York Post.

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