Being a Woman in India | Thoughts on Safety

June 11, 2015

India, travel writing

Being a Woman in IndiaI lived in India for close to a decade. I’m white, blonde haired and blue eyed. The first night I arrived to India, minutes from the airport, I was assaulted in a taxi. During the floods of 2005 in Maharashtra where 1000 people died, I was assaulted while walking home in waist high water.  The times of breast and crotch groping are too numerous to list.

Did I feel safe in India, you ask? Yes.

Are all female travelers safe there? No, not at all.

I recognize that it doesn’t make sense. How could I feel safe in a country where I was assaulted more times than I can count. But the reality is, overall I did feel safe. Or did it just became my new ‘normal’? That I can’t say for certain.

Being a Woman in IndiaI traveled the country far and wide on my own, with friends, for work and later with my son. It was rare that I felt threatened or unsafe. Traveling around India for work took me to some very remote rural areas in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. I was often the only female in the work environment, having dinner with groups of men, being driven around by groups of men, visiting farms, factories and warehouses with groups of men. In these situations, I never felt unsafe and nothing ever happened to me. I chatted freely to the young guys working at the chemist downstairs from my house, with the men at my husband’s work and with rickshaw drivers in our neighborhood. And nothing ever happened.

But riding the bus, walking home in floods, taking a taxi, walking with a Ganesh procession or walking down a street in daylight were the times when something would happen. The everyday situations where the (high) possibility of being eve-teased, groped and harassed is what is very disturbing to me.

Lonely Planet states on their website: “You’re very unlikely to experience violent crime as a woman traveller in India; it’s sexual harassment that you may experience—more so in tourist towns and larger cities in the north of the country. Rude comments, voyeurism, and men ‘brushing against’ or groping women are all common.”

For me, the question I keep returning to is, can a place be deemed safe for women when it is likely that you will be exposed to sexual harassment, groping or eve-teasing? For many travelers, the prospect of being harassed or groped is not bothersome, while for others it presents a real threat to their safety. Does personal safety exist on a sliding scale? It seems that for many it does.

Is it OK that we as travelers accept that this is the norm, a “part of the culture”?

It is OK when travel recommendations for solo female travelers to India include the caveat of “pretend to be married” or “don’t make eye contact with men on the streets”?

I don’t think so.

I have travelled to many male dominated countries and have never felt that it was wrong to look men in the eye. I have never felt that by asking questions to a strange man that I am sending messages of being open to sex. But this is what is often portrayed in blog posts about women’s safety in India.

So are we telling the true story? Or are we blinded by our love for a fascinating and exuberant country when we say that it’s safe to travel there alone as a female?

I don’t have the answers.

Being a Woman in IndiaWhat I do know is that in many facets of Indian society women are treated as second class citizens. When discrimination against a woman begins in the womb, you can see that change will not come easily.

The degradation of women is seen in all phases of a woman’s life in India. From female infanticide to girls being forced into marriage or sold into prostitution to women being abused and tortured by their in-laws, or being abandoned by their husbands and left for destitution, it happens from before birth and often until death.

Those are the social problems that occur every day in India, but never affect a traveler. Along with those come the smaller instances that happen over and over every day, reinforcing the beliefs and behaviors of many. A woman being ignored in favor of speaking to the man in the group. The necessity of ladies only train carriages because men “can’t control themselves” when crammed in the same transport as women. Government warnings, the insinuations in guidebooks and by bloggers that groping is just a risk you take while traveling in India. Yes, I know and agree that men grope, harass and abuse women throughout the world, but I’m not convinced it happens on the same scale and frequency that it does in India.

Being a Woman in IndiaI don’t say this to scare people from going to India. India is truly one of the most amazing countries I have ever visited. It will pull you in and change you forever. India is full of extremely hospitable and welcoming people. I have had many many more positive experiences than negative ones, but when informing first time travelers about India, it’s difficult to tell them when, how and with whom to be open and who to guard against.

So, when I see a sensationalistic piece in the media about a foreigner being harassed in India, I secretly rejoice (not for the incident, but for the media attention). Maybe this will be the story that forces the government to get serious about the safety and security of women (all women, not just pale skinned tourists) and create laws that safeguard them, create punishments that are feared by perpetrators, establish police and judicial systems that believe it is vital to the future of this country to prosecute each and every instance of abuse, assault, harassment and rape. Create an environment that allows women the security to know that if something does happen to them that they will not be persecuted by the police for being “a prostitute”, wearing the wrong clothes or doing immoral things like drinking.

For things to change in India, fundamental shifts need to happen. I see it happening in Mumbai and probably similarly in large educated, moneyed cities of India. But it takes time to trickle down. And until Indians are heard on these issues there is little hope for the rest of us.

“The difference is that we are poor. We are not heard. When we go to the police station, they just do some formality. We are not being heard. We want justice,” – CNN

Money is what talks. If the perception of India being a place where women are not safe continues, which in turn affects the bottom line of tourism, things will have to shift.

Being a Woman in IndiaI love India with my entire being. I spent a good portion of my life living and working there. My son was born there. It was and continues to be a very important part of who I am.  While there I worked on the ground with non profits looking after women’s rights, I volunteered with a girls shelter, and I lived and traveled there as a white woman. I have multiple perspectives on this issue.

But yet here I am, still baffled on how to honestly answer the question of “Is it safe to travel to India alone as a woman?”

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27 Responses to “Being a Woman in India | Thoughts on Safety”

  1. Mariellen Ward Says:

    Thanks for writing a brave, honest, thoughtful post, Karilyn. As you know, I share your love for travel in India, I’ve spent two years there over the past 10 years.

    I have NOT had the same experiences as you. Overall, I’ve had very few negative incidents in India, where I find the people to be warm and friendly and helpful. However, I’m also much older than you. I think younger woman may be more likely to attract harassment, though I don’t know this for sure. I can tell you, that I was sexually harassed a LOT when I was in my 20s, wherever I went, including my home town of Toronto, Canada, which is supposed to be safe for women.

    I often write on my blog about travel safety in India and I always say the same thing: it’s HOW you travel, not WHERE. Unfortunately, negative things can happen anywhere. Is it worse in India? Not statistically in terms of rape, murder or other violence.

    The socio-cultural issue of India’s attitudes towards women is a related issue to travel in India. Naturally, I would love to see all of India’s women educated, free and empowered! I hope by travelling there, writing about India and showing by example, I can inspire women.

    We each have to make our choices in life. As a traveller and writer, I choose to travel in India. And I support any women who wants to travel there as much as I can with advice and tips and encouragement. And I support women in India to achieve the freedom and opportunities they deserve. Cheers!

    Mariellen
    Breathedreamgo.com
    Mariellen Ward recently posted…How to travel safely in India webinarMy Profile

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    • kkowen Says:

      Thanks Mariellen. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. I totally agree, it’s not what you wear or where you go, it’s HOW you travel. And some of that is having confidence and security in knowing where you are going or what you are doing, which is hard I think for first time travelers.

      You do great work to give women the tools necessary to travel to India on their own. And really for most people, very little happens to them besides the verbal eve teasing which they may not even understand!

      Reply

  2. Lydia C. Lee Says:

    This is really interesting – and an interesting perspective. Thanks
    Lydia C. Lee recently posted…The towering cliffs and canyons in Kaua’iMy Profile

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  3. Tami Says:

    I had no idea it was so bad in India. But I’ve never had any desire to visit, either. But if I ever change my mind, I guess I’ll have to be very careful! Is it ever any better if you’re with a male traveler or husband?
    Tami recently posted…Balboa Park — Jewel of San DiegoMy Profile

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    • kkowen Says:

      Yeah it’s quite a bit different when you travel with a male. When I travelled with my husband I was virtually ignored!

      Reply

  4. Revati Says:

    As a woman who lives in India, I must say yes, we do have problems in this country. Which is why dressing and behaving appropriately is the only solution. Does that mean I live in a burka? No. I’m quite free to wear whatever I want, but I will not try a pair of hot shorts on the local train because I know it gets crowded and people stick to each other and I do not want any unwanted attention. It’s the same thing you’d do going anywhere else, respect the local customs, and you’ll enjoy yourself a whole lot more.
    Revati recently posted…Comment on 5 Must See Piazzas in Rome by Janeen @ Green Global TravelMy Profile

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    • kkowen Says:

      No Revati, dressing and acting appropriately is not the solution. The solution is education, harsh punishment to offenders (from the police and society) and developing a fundamental respect and value for women. This happens to Indian women every day in every locale in India. It is not on the woman to behave ‘properly’. It is precisely this way of thinking that perpetuates the behavior. Men use the excuse ‘oh she wasn’t dressed properly.’ Or ‘she was out at night which means she’s looking for trouble’ (the Delhi rape case gave these statements).

      I NEVER wore anything even remotely inappropriate and this all happened. I repeat, it is not how you dress that provides protection. It is never the fault of the woman when a man acts inappropriately to her.

      And I don’t think you are quite free to wear what you want if you can’t wear hot pants! lol Although I’ve seen many Indian woman with skirts as short as that and they aren’t harassed. It is not about how you are dressed. Thus my point, how can you accurately provide warnings to female travelers when there is no rhyme or reason as to who is harassed?

      I’m curious, how does one dress and act appropriately by your definition?

      But just for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed myself over a decade and always respected the local customs. I loved my kurtas and actually still dress very similarly back in the U.S.! After so many years of being covered up, I can’t fathom going outside with just a tank top in or without a scarf covering my shoulders!

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  5. chrysoula Says:

    Very nice story. I have heard a lot about the harassment that takes place in India. I don’t believe I would travel tere on my own and it’s a pity because it seems like a wonderful country!
    chrysoula recently posted…Archaeological Site of Asklipieion at EpidaurusMy Profile

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    • kkowen Says:

      If you don’t want to travel alone to India, find a friend to go with!! It is such an amazing and beautiful country that it should be on everyone’s must visit list!

      Reply

  6. Katie @worldwidevegetarian.com Says:

    This was a very honest and interesting piece. I just came back to the West from a 4 month solo trip in India, and after reading more and more stories like this, I wonder, was I just lucky in India? I felt really comfortable in most situations, whether I was traveling with or without a friend, or with or without an Indian man. The worst that happened to me was that a teenage boy sat a little too close to me on the train, and then I stupidly fell asleep and got pick pocketed – they took my ipod and some cash ($7?) but left my phone and credit cards. And I felt like this was really my fault, I let my guard down and didn’t secure my stuff properly. While traveling, I made many beautiful friends, and had the most amazing times, so amazing that I am going back to India in the fall. I don’t know whether it was just luck, or the way I dressed, or what, but the most annoying thing to me about Indian men was the staring, which is easy enough for me to ignore. I guess it also helped that I had a few Indian guy friends in Delhi who I traveled with often, but even so I rode the train and took rickshaws and cabs by myself as well. But of course, I am aware the groping happens and I have heard stories from other female travelers on this matter. Coming from the USA where I got robbed at gunpoint, I felt safe in India, because there are no guns really. I also get harassed verbally on a daily basis while walking through my home city Washington DC and feel equally as threatened by men there – plus the harassment is in my own language so I completely understand what they are saying to me. But everything is relative, so for me, I felt that India was safe, uncomfortable at times, but as a woman, sadly, I don’t expect comfort everywhere I go because reality women don’t have this luxury in most places in the world today. Thanks for sharing your honest views, and the reminder that we need to keep up the work on women’s equality for the benefit of travelers and more importantly, those living in poor situations.
    Katie
    Katie @worldwidevegetarian.com recently posted…Bodhgaya, India Through PhotosMy Profile

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    • kkowen Says:

      Lucky you that you never experienced anything inappropriate! I have to say that once I became more familiar with India, spoke Hindi and had an air of familiarity and confidence about me, I received much less attention. Well I also learned to just block it out. I remember my first trip to Haridwar and feeling like a movie star at how much attention I was getting. It went from “this is fun” to moments of “this is really uncomfortable” as the attention was almost constant to absolute shock when something physical would happen.

      Actually that visit in Hardiwar ended with riots because a man inappropriately touched an Indian woman who was in prayer and people flipped out. It was intense. This was in 2004, so the fight for women’s rights have been in the media for a long time.

      My number one recommendation for women travellers is to be confident. Have a sense of knowing where you are going and what you are doing. I feel this confidence and familiarity helps. But really there is no rhyme or reason as to why some women are harassed and some aren’t. In my view it’s sort of luck of the draw and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      I am so happy to hear you had so many amazing experiences. I did as well. I ache to go back almost on a daily basis. it’s just such a part of my soul now. It really does pull you in! We drove a rickshaw across India and met some of the most amazing people ever on that journey. The kindness of strangers was just above and beyond. That journey through the middle of India where most places had never even seen tourists really restored my faith in the kindness of humankind.

      The experiences I have had as a tourist and as someone living there have been some of the best of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

      Even with bad things happening, I always looked to each situation with openness. Sometimes you catch yourself being super on guard saying “No” before you even give a person a chance. Being taken to rickshaw walla’s homes in the villages or being taken to an out of the way delicious restaurant by a driver’s recommendation. But as a tourist it’s easy to be scared of these situations and say no. I’m constantly trying to figure out a way to tell people go, do and enjoy these experiences. Be open to even the touts, but be smart and know the scams and Indians will show you what Indian hospitality really means.

      Enjoy your next trip!

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  7. TravelGretl Says:

    That’s a question to ask… I love how you speak about the country, it shows your love and thoughts about it :)
    I was in India on my first travel outside of Europe. We started in Delhi. Never really thought about that 😉 I was kind of shocked at first but we got used to it and learned a lot in a short time. I had difficulties with dealing with men sometimes. When they wouldn’t talk to me, or keep on staring… One tried to touch me in a bus, but he probably didn’t expect me to stand up and tell him exactly what I thought (maybe a bit too loud). He went out of the bus immediately.
    In general I don’t have that bad a feeling about it leaving the country. Though I would never go there without a man, but that’s personal preference!

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  8. Fairlie Says:

    What an interesting post. I DO want to visit India…but with two teenaged daughters, this kind of information gives me pause. I wonder if travelling as a family, the girls would be a bit more sheltered from this than if they were on their own?
    Fairlie recently posted…Going to the footy in Melbourne: a visitor’s guideMy Profile

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  9. Megsy Says:

    What a fantastic article – and an important topic to talk about. I am one of the seemly few that did not enjoy india. Yes there were good parts but when my boyfriend is told “you should take your woman home before someone shoves a bottle in your face and takes her” it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I think that education is the number one thing that will help shift this inequality between men and women – some people are doing a fantastic job doing this, but these things do take some time. I have high hopes for India’s future.
    Megsy recently posted…ATTENTION Curvy Ladies – Want a swimsuit you can feel good in?My Profile

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  10. Simone Says:

    Interesting article & perspective, I have worried a lot about travelling to India as a female having heard some horror stories. Really appreciate your perspective, thank you!
    Simone
    http://www.theaussieflashpacker.com
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  11. Sean Says:

    Karilyn, thanks for writing this. We’ve heard from people and seen the media reports about the problem of harassment in India, but you really sum it up nicely without dismissing it or saying “don’t go to India if you’re a woman.” We hope the changes you mentioned in Mumbai become more widespread, but any change of this kind take time…
    Sean recently posted…Unleashing Spain’s Wild Side in LleidaMy Profile

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  12. Jacomijn Says:

    Great piece. I have the same problem when people ask me is it safe to travel in India? Especially as a female solo traveler. Traveled solo for 1 month, Rajasthan and Kerala.

    I didn’t have any negative experiences but I do know the stories. I did see men staring and sometimes coming up to me. I can defend myself and see things building up and so prefend a situation that maybe could’ve gone into harassment…I don’t know.

    What I do know is that I love India!! Going back again this year!!
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  13. Nic from Roaming Renegades Says:

    It’s great to read something very honest like this which not only tell the reality of what happens and doesn’t sugar coat it but also isn’t scare mongering. I think it is something which I have been considering when thinking about visiting India but won’t stop me, but then again I will be with my husband. I was once groped by an Indian man in my home town, I was so shocked I didn’t really react.
    Nic from Roaming Renegades recently posted…Our adrenaline filled anniversary: monkeying around at GO APE!My Profile

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  14. Brianna Says:

    Thank you for a very thought provoking piece that doesn’t sugar coat or sensationalize sexual harrassment in India. While I have not traveled to India I have visited several countries in the Middle East and got my share of unwanted attention, though never so far as touching or groping.
    Brianna recently posted…The Iris Inn – A Welcoming Shenandoah HideawayMy Profile

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  15. Randy Hilarski Says:

    Great piece! Here in Panama we often here that foreign women are harassed because men whistle at them as they walk down the street. This blog post makes visiting Panama look like child play. I applaud you for writing this post.
    Randy Hilarski recently posted…Panama, Sloth Here Sloth There Sloths EverywhereMy Profile

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    • kkowen Says:

      Thanks Randy. People get very passionate when they talk about women travelers in India and I just wanted to put out my experiences since everyone seems to view harassment differently.

      Reply

  16. Elaine Schoch Says:

    Great post! Unfortunately change takes time. Undoing a cultural belief can take longer, but like you said, it’s “starting”. Articles like this and other news pieces help move change faster.
    Elaine Schoch recently posted…Reasons to Visit IcelandMy Profile

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    • kkowen Says:

      Thanks Elaine. It definitely is slow progress but as people continue to discuss it it makes it move a little faster!!

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  17. Jacomijn - Safe and Healthy Travel Says:

    Honoust piece. I must day, I haven’t had any bad experience other then being stared at :)
    Last year I spend 2 times a month in India, first month alone!
    I love India, I love the culture, I love the people, I love the food…and I can go on for hours I think… :)
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  18. Michelle | michwanderlust Says:

    Interesting and thought-provoking article. Thanks for trying to be balanced about it! sadly, women are still treated like second-class citizens in many parts of the world, but India is one of the most notorious. I’ve heard about Indian expats living abroad for the sake of their daughter, for this reason.

    I’m struggling to understand how it felt safe despite the multiple assaults. how did you react when such incidents occurred?
    Michelle | michwanderlust recently posted…Naples: Faith, Food and Further ThoughtsMy Profile

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    • kkowen Says:

      Hi Michelle, thanks for the comment. You know I don’t know how it get safe even with all the incidents.. I guess because I built up a strong armor and didn’t let it get to me perhaps? Or maybe I became to cold to it? But I have no qualms about going back, traveling around at night, etc. In a country of so many people packed so tightly together in cities I just aways knew someone would be an opportunist and take advantage of the situation. At the time of the incidents I was full of rage and anger and would fight back obviously but as time has gone on, I don’t look back at it with the same hate. And it totally helped me understand why so many women would want to wear burkas. It does provide a sense of security in some ways.

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