I 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.
I 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.
What 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.
I 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.
I 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?”