I am a first generation Canadian-Indian woman from Canada. I have been travelling to the land of my roots for several years, and I have never had a real problem there. I find the locals to be largely very friendly and warm – as the culture thrives on hospitality. Indians are helpful and curious people. So please don’t let this article make you nervous or paranoid. Rather, it’s just to prepare you. Because it’s wise to be aware. To be mindful. To be confident. And assert yourself. By staying in your power – your Shakti.
My intention here is to ease the fear with what I’ve learned from travelling solo around the planet for nearly 15 years. I am a supporter of women. If I can empower one woman through this piece, I will have fulfilled my intention. And know that not all Indian men are going to want something from you, yet I can say that most will. That said, I have some Indian male friends who are delightful, and would never try to exploit me or any other foreign female.
The truth is I’ve met countless western women who clearly have a longing to travel to the Mother Land. But. They don’t. Why? Fear. Fear for their safety. Fear of the unknown. Fearful that they won’t be able to hack the “assault on the senses,” they’ve heard so much about. But mostly fear of the local men, considering local rape is rampant (92 women are raped daily in India, according to National Crime Records Bureau 2013). The fact is that western women are often perceived as sex objects because many local men have a certain perception of foreign women thanks to the internet and subsequently, the glorification of pornography. Therefore women are generally deemed “easy.”
That said, I truly believe that if we project fear – fear will find us. However. If we project confidence, people pick up on that. And they don’t mess with you. Because you’re in your power. Your Shakti. And that is your most powerful support on the road. Using your sense of intuition – your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. So proceed accordingly. And exude your strength and confidence always.
I have really only ever had two situations with males in India in which I had to go beyond just the usual ignoring of their leering and derogatory comments. Once I punched a guy in the nose. And shamed another in public. One response ensued because of a grope on a public bus, and the other as a result of stopping what I could see was about to happen based on my oh so reliable instinct/intuition. I was in my early 20s at that time – the early days of my world travel, and some what naive. And ok, I was also a bit of a firecracker back then. But make no mistake, I would do it again if I found myself in the same unfortunate situation. And I wouldn’t think twice about it.
I do believe that one must respect the culture of the country one is living/travelling in. So do your homework – talk to others who have been there or read up. Take time to understand the culture. When you do, you will learn fast that India is a conservative culture. And very traditional. Local women are not just hanging out in the street or at cafes. Unless you are in a tourism area like Rishikesh for instance, where weekenders from Delhi are all around.
The fact is that India is a patriarchal society. Women are predominantly at home taking care of the family, household and tending the fields. You will not see a woman just hanging out on her own. Or even within a small group of women. (Again, with the exception of tourist centres like Rishikesh or in the cities.) However you will see many men doing the former. Everywhere. All day. Everyday. Women don’t receive much respect compared to western culture, and don’t have much freedom to fully express themselves. So when you are there as a single western woman travelling on your own, being free and expressing it – you will be noticed. You will stick out to the locals, as women do not travel alone there. It is highly rare. You may not be worried about travelling in India solo. Yet because locals don’t see women travelling alone, they will verbally express their worry for you. Mothers and families especially. Whereas the men will most often be curious – and persistent.
Here are a few more tips to support you in your travel as a solo woman in India. I hope you find it helpful.
- You will meet countless other solo woman travellers. You will connect. You will bond. And forge deep friendships. And it will be so great! You will empower each other by simply being in India as solo woman travellers.
- Don’t look men in the eye. And definitely don’t smile at them. (Even if you come from a super friendly place like I do (Canadian West coast) – where smiling at each other in public is the norm’. I struggled with this when I first started going to India alone in my early 20s. “What am I becoming?!” I thought to myself. “This is not me!” Yet after speaking to other women solo travellers on that trip, we came to the understanding that it’s a coping mechanism to divert unwanted attention. If it meant not being hassled constantly, so be it.
- Cover up your shoulders and wear long skirts. No cleavage. Even when it’s really hot. Drape a scarf over your chest at all times. (Even if you don’t have cleavage.) If you decide to dress what is deemed inappropriate, you will most definitely invite unwanted male attention that includes intense leering, men trying to get close to you on the street or on public transit, and maybe even a grope. Attempts to engage you in conversation, getting asked on a date or even invited to get a “massage” will be what you will have to contend with. Constantly. The choice is yours’. Where do you want to focus your energy?
- Consider wearing traditional clothing. It’s fun and can be a conversation starter with locals. Somehow the men seem to respect you more, and bother you less.
- Travel with a cell phone. The cheapest local phone will cost you about $20CAD+ a sim card and some phone credit for less than another $5CAD. This is a great way to make arrangements for accommodation in your next location (for which you will have already noted the address and phone number upon leaving your last destination.)
- Take the business card of your guesthouse. You will always have their phone number and address if you’re ever in trouble, get lost, or find yourself stranded.
- A male will approach you for a picture. I just politely say “no thank you.” Those pictures may very well be used in ways you’d rather not think about.
- In the case that you do experience a grope in public, shame the dude or dudes in public. Loudly. Make a scene. People will come to your side to support you. And join in. And that is the worst possible action you can dish out. Because shaming in public is highly frowned upon in India, as reputation and saving face is everything. And it is much more effective than any other response such as yelling.
- If you experience a sexual advance you are uncomfortable with, I suggest calling your local embassy immediately. The police there are often corrupt. They often operate on bribes. And everything takes a very long time in India, as there is no sense of efficiency there. Getting fast-tracked via your embassy would be your best bet. They would likely accompany your police report, which the force would take seriously since you are coming through an embassy. And because you are a foreigner, they will respond “efficiently,” as the country doesn’t want bad press for tourism since it’s one of their top industries. If it is after hours, for sure go to the police, but do contact your embassy when it opens.
- Men will often stick their tongue out at you if they are attracted to you. It’s pretty disgusting. And it will happen often in the tourist centres such as Rishikesh. Just ignore it. In my 20s I attempted to give every man that did that a piece of mind. It only made me tired. And they don’t take your response seriously. They just laugh. Because they are amped on your reaction. Simply because they just want a response – any response. Don’t play into their game.
- Say no thank you when a local dude offers to buy you anything. If you say yes, you are inviting persistent unwanted attention that you will likely regret. By saying yes, you are unconsciously saying yes to his attraction to you. Save yourself!
- You are married, engaged or meeting your boyfriend in the next town. Especially when you’re asked if you’re travelling alone by a man.
- You’re a brahmacharini or sanyasi. On my last trip I found myself answering this when I was asked why I was not married. And the always predictable local response, “Oh! Very good!” It’s acceptable to be a single woman only if you’ve dedicated your life to a spiritual path. Sweet!
- Don’t walk at night. Try to walk with a foreign male friend. Or a group of people. If you have to, take busy/main streets, a flashlight, and your phone. (I remember the first time I went to India as a solo woman traveller – my father gave me the emergency number for the police before I left!) Better yet, just pay for a rickshaw or a taxi. It’s well worth it for peace of mind and your safety, which is priceless.
- There’s no sense of personal space in the country. If you’re riding public transport and don’t want some local dude hanging over you or rubbing up against you, be selective where you sit; just move; or put your bag between you and him. And don’t forget, project your Shakti.
- On night trains sleep on the top bunk for safety. Lock your backpack to the bar with a chain. Keep your valuables on you at all times. Be friendly with those around you, particularly women and families. If there’s a leering dude close by, ignore him and hopefully he’ll lose interest. By engaging and making friends with those around you, the leering dude will lose interest because he doesn’t want to be perceived as being inappropriate. Saving face in public is everything in this culture.
- Avoid reading the local papers. There’s a rape culture in India. Stats are high, as noted above. You will see stories of abuses on women and children almost daily. It is hard on the mind. I do check BBC India on occasion since they have a good journalistic rapport, with balanced stories.
- Just take the money you need for an outing and leave the rest of your money/cards/travellers cheques locked securely in your backpack, in your room that’s locked with your own personal padlock. This avoids wearing a money belt, which is uncomfortable. And obvious.
- Use a small shoulder bag for your phone, camera, and money when on an outing. Wear it across your shoulders (and not like purse on one shoulder). Because on rare occasion men have been known to drive by on a motor bike and grab your insecurely held bag—and take off. Really.
- Swiss knife. I always travel with one. It’s great for cutting up fruit and spreading peanut butter too.
- Be aware that alcoholism among village men is widespread. Proceed accordingly.
- Dog bites are pretty common. You can get rabies vaccination there for pretty cheap. In all my years, I’ve never been bit by a dog – but on my last trip, three of my friends were bit by dogs when they either went to pet one, or one just came up from behind for a bite.
- When you’re lost, ask three people for directions, and go with the best two out of three. Many Indians like to be helpful. Even if they don’t know the right answer!
- Don’t be polite. Rather, be assertive with men. If you’re a people pleaser in general, you will be challenged here.
- You will be confronted with lewd gestures like men grabbing themselves. Just ignore it and keep on keeping on.
- There’s women’s seating in metro and train stations and on board both of these transport options. There are also women’s ticket lines at train booking offices. Use these supports.
- Get referrals for guesthouses, drivers and guides. Or use recommendations from the Lonely Planet.
- View your room at your guesthouse first. Do the doors and windows lock properly? Are there other guests staying there? Are their families there?
- Choose local female practitioners. If you want to get a local massage, hire a female masseuse. And go to a female gynecologist if you need one. I have heard disturbing stories from other western women about their encounters with male practitioners in India.
- Going swimming? Wear long shorts and a t-shirt over your bathing suit. Local women don’t wear bathing suits, as they generally swim in their traditional clothing. If in high touristy places like Goa, western women do wear bathing suits and bikinis, but be prepared to be harassed. You will contend with leering, lewd gestures, and having your photo taken without permission.
- If you must travel at night on the bus, sit with other women, a family — or a really nice foreign male that will act as a front, and deter local men from approaching you.
- Organize your transport from the airport to your guesthouse beforehand. You will be tired and disoriented so save yourself the trouble of haggling in your first moments in the country.
- Learn some Hindi. It’s a great way to connect with the locals. And they are so happy when they hear you speak it. (Lean a few swear words for your back pocket in case you have difficulty with a male who just won’t quit. Seriously.)
- People will come up to you on the street several times a day asking for money and/or food. Kids will ask for chocolate, 1 rupee or a pen. This can be hard on your mind. The reality is that you can’t give to every one. You will say “chalo chalo” often, which refers to “please move on” if they are being overly persistent.
- Getting ripped off. Bargaining is the norm when buying in the markets. In the end, if it’s a 10 or 20Rs difference, don’t let it get to you. It’s 20 or 30 cents. Let it go.
Do you have a tip for solo women travellers in India? Let’s hear it. Please comment below.