India has a dubious rep as an unsafe destination for solo women travelers. Among the tumult of impressions, large population, heat, dust, and noise that new visitors to India must deal with, solo women travelers also have to reckon with concerns about safety.
There are reserved areas for women on public transport, separate women’s queues at ticket counters, and family spaces in highway restaurants. Of course, it is problematic that these are needed at all, but that’s a larger battle being fought by the women of India.
People also tend to trust women more, bringing them into the fold of families and larger groups.
India is so vast, with so many different cultures and traditions, that it is impossible to talk about it as one place. In over a decade of exploring, I’ve only uncovered a minute part of my chaotic, beautiful nation. In many parts of it, I am as much a foreigner as a visitor from another country.
CAN I HAVE A PHOTO, MADAM?
I asked Anja Froehnel, a repeat visitor to India from Germany, if that happens to her a lot. “Frequently! If they ask nicely, with a smile and real interest, I say yes. After two weeks though, it becomes a burden.” Then she has a fun way of dealing with the situation. “I start telling people I charge for photos and ask for ten rupees. That usually ends the conversation pretty quickly,” she says.
Do such incidents cause safety concerns? Not really, Margot says. “There are so many people around all the time, making it feel safer. You could be out in the middle of the Thar Desert, minding your own business and, if you give it long enough, you’re sure to cross paths with someone. Or at least stumble upon a chaiwallah.”
BEING THE OBJECT OF UNWANTED ATTENTION, EVEN WHEN IT IS NOT MALICIOUS IN INTENT, CAN BE UNSETTLING.
Unlike Anja, some visitors chafe at the constant scrutiny. Hamburg resident Anja Dunkel, who lived and worked in Mumbai for several years, and has visited ever winter since then, dislikes being asked to take photos. “In the holiest of places, people seem to be more mesmerized by the fact that I’m a white woman than by any historic sight. I don’t run around with a selfie stick so I can absorb the experience of being in a place. So naturally, I also don’t want to take pictures with strangers.” Being the object of unwanted attention, even when it is not malicious in intent, can be unsettling.
PERKS OF BEING A SOLO WOMAN TRAVELER
Anja loves, however, that people are quick to treat her as a friend or welcome guest rather than an unwanted stranger. Photographer Meesha Holley, of mixed Indian and British descent, agrees. She recounts a time when a young girl hailed her in Kaza, Spiti. “She asked me where I was from and what I was taking photos of, posed for a portrait, and then, taking me completely by surprise, invited me home to show me more of her culture.” Back in the young girl’s house, Meesha met her brother and sister. Though their parents were away, the children didn’t hesitate to show her around their home.
Not only do people trust women more, they also tend to be more protective of them. Often, on road trips through the Himalayas, where it’s hard to predict how long a journey on the winding roads will take, my hosts at the destination have called me to check on my progress, and even asked to speak to the driver so he knows that someone is keeping tab. It’s also why public shaming can be useful tactic when unpleasant situations arise. If someone threatens your personal space, tell them off loudly. Others will intervene to ensure the troublemaker is quickly gone. A lot of people in India speak English, so you’ll usually find someone you can communicate with.
IN TIMES OF TROUBLE
There are, however, rare occasions when things go wrong and no one else is around. Confronted with harassment in such a situation, Meesha found her camera handy. On a visit to Varkala, a beach town in Kerala, she was propositioned by a belligerent fisherman, who wanted to know how much she’d charge. “I turned back, quickly lifted my camera in his direction, and shouted: You’re sick! I’m taking your photo to the police! He quickly began to walk away.”
Many solo women travelers, whether Indian or foreign, have had similar experiences. A quick poll among the women I know revealed that such incidents tend to happen in places that are considered “party spots”, often beaches. Large parts of India are predominantly patriarchal, and while much has changed for women in terms of opportunities and access, mindsets are slower to change. Certain actions are considered “unbecoming” for women in Indian culture. Drinking alcohol, dancing with men, staying out late, wearing small clothes rank high among them. Women who do these things, it is believed, must be immoral and “available”. In fact, as Meesha points out, Indian women are judged more harshly in this paradigm. “Just the fact that an Indian woman is travelling solo is often taken to mean that she is reckless and has loose morals,” she says. In such places, there will be that one man in a hundred, who thinks it’s okay to proposition a lone woman. It’s best to be accompanied by other people while stepping away from the tourist zone, or after dark.
EVERYBODY HAS A STRATEGY
All the female travelers I spoke to have evolved strategies to stay safe when they travel alone. They dress conservatively, avoid venturing out alone after dark except in well-lit tourist areas, and keep their phones handy. Some carry pepper spray or tasers.
Anja has one more strategy: She avoids big cities. “The unpleasant things about India, the poverty, dirt, noise, crowd, and traffic, are most evident in the cities. When I go beyond, I find the India I keep coming back for. A place of astonishing color, temples, music, culture, nature, and people. India has so many faces and so much for a visitor to discover.”
She ends with a line she’s heard travelers use for India: India is the last country you should visit. After this, no other place will be more interesting, crazy, and beautiful, all at the same time.
MORE TIPS FOR TRAVELLING SOLO
- Like in other countries, it pays to learn a few words in the local language. Nothing disarms a curious bystander more than a greeting in their own language.
- Dress conservatively. That doesn’t mean you need to be covered head to toe; but shorts paired with a tank top are not advisable. Loose cotton clothing that breathes and shields from skin burn works better for the weather too. Keep a scarf handy in your back for additional cover-up if needed in some situations.
- I tend to pick reputed homestays when I travel because that lends a personal touch to the experience, ensuring I have an ally in a destination even before I get there. Alternatively, if your destination has an affordable hotel by a reputable chain, book the first night there so you have a safe landing spot to launch your explorations from.
- Don’t compromise on your safety to save money. If I try to book the cheapest room I can get in NYC, I’ll probably end up in a seedy neighborhood where trouble lurks around the corner. The same applies to India: Do your research and go for a recommended place.
- Keep a friend or family member apprised of your travel plans. Create a system to check in regularly, say once in three days. Even a Whatsapp message or Facebook post will do the trick. Get a local SIM card with data for your phone, it doesn’t cost much.
- In most places, it is best not to venture out alone after dark. While booking flights, trains, and buses, choose options that get you to your destination in daylight. If its unavoidable have someone from your hotel/homestay come meet you.
- If you’re alone in a cab or a rickshaw and the driver tries to take a friend along, say no. If they don’t agree, get a different taxi/rickshaw.
- Most public transport has spaces just for women; look for these. Even in restaurants, you’ll find “Family Section”. Head straight for those. Added benefit: These usually have air conditioning, though the food costs marginally more.
- Most staring is just curiosity. Try to ignore it. If it bothers you, politely tell the person not too. If it persists, and you feel trouble is lurking, don’t hesitate to make a loud scene.
- Eve-teasing, a phrase you’ll hear often in India to refer to the harassment of women, is often the realm of weak, sexually repressed men who try to take advantage of crowded spaces to cop a feel. As college girls, my friends and I learnt to wear our backpacks in front to prevent “accidental” brushing. And we didn’t hesitate to elbow any man who pressed too close and then blame it on the swerving bus.
- You can also dial 100, the number for the police that works across India. Several big cities and tourist spots, have squads dedicated to addressing women’s safety concerns. However, their response time can be erratic.
And if all this sounds too overwhelming, do remember, these precautions are only meant to protect you in the off chance that something nasty happens. Have a good time, and have plenty of conversations; they’ll make your trip extra special. Most Indians are welcoming, chatty, and happy to share their life stories. Go for it, ladies!
Full article: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/asia/india/should-women-travel-solo-india-tips/?