India has never been the best place to be a woman. The country’s reputation has deteriorated recently and it has suffered a drop in tourism, particularly from women travelling solo. This, together with public awareness, will hopefully cause India to become a better place for women. In the meantime, there is no reason why you should avoid India. All you need is some preparation.
Really, being safe as a woman solo traveler in India is nothing out of the ordinary: basically, just be smart and careful. However, after living there for almost a year, I learned a couple of things I wish I had known before going — if only to know what to expect.
1. Prepare yourself – watch Bollywood.
Not only is the local cinema a great way of getting in the mood for your trip, but it can teach you a lot about the country. Note how the lead actresses are dressed. My grandmother, who travelled to India in the sixties, warned me against showing my legs in public, so I took longer skirts and lighter blouses. I couldn’t have been more wrong. You will see a lot of legs on screen, but even actresses in miniskirts and microshorts will not show any cleavage, which should tell you what parts of the female body are taboo in the country. Showing your legs is okay (just don’t parade around the streets in a miniskirt), but be very careful about clothes that show or even hint at your breasts. Loose tops with minimum cleavage are best.
2. Did you watch Bollywood? Go back and re-play the music videos
This time, keep your eyes away from the stars and look for foreign girls (videhsis). They will be clad in skimpy outfits, dancing in the background. If they have a speaking role, they will be either prostitutes or some easily accessed woman whom the main character will dispose of after he finds his true, Indian love. Sadly, these is the way foreign girls, especially blondes, are thought of, and this is how men will see you.
Indians don’t typically date (arranged marriages are still very common) and sex before marriage is a big taboo. Indian men think that foreign women will sleep with them at the drop of a hat and they will try their luck – whether it is by asking you point-blank on the streets to go with them to a hotel, calling you up at 4am to ask if you’re a virgin, or groping you in the train and figuring that you won’t mind. There is not much you can do about your skin and hair color, but it helps to know that you should be on your guard.
3.Learn some moves.
Indian men will try to touch you, partly just to see if they can get away with it, and partly because they don’t see how it could possibly be wrong. I’ve had men “trip” on me or want to hug me because there was no space in the rickshaw, but the worst are the nudges men will give when passing you on the street. I learnt very quickly to cross my arms in front of me whenever I saw a guy approaching, just to be on the safe side. Assume that no contact is accidental, and be ready to let the guy know you don’t approve: take his arm, loudly say “no”, make him change his seat on the train or sit next to the driver in a rickshaw. Even if he doesn’t understand English someone around you will get the gist and make sure he gets away. Insist until this happens, or remove yourself from the situation.
4.Don’t be stupid.
I made some very stupid decisions, things I wouldn’t even do in my own country. Don’t walk alone in a dark, empty street (yes, I did this and got groped), don’t walk alone in a dark street while listening to a podcast and being distracted (a man started following me that time), don’t get in cars with strangers. Take the same basic precautions you would take anywhere. If any situation gets too bad, remember that five dollars and a rickshaw will help you get away.
5. Spend the money.
India is a very cheap country, and during your trip you may grow used to bargaining and getting the cheapest price. I know that my friends and I got so used to asking for the local fares and prices that we ended up paying even less than the locals. Don’t let this get to your head, though. Remember that sometimes you will need to spend money to get yourself to a safe place, whether it is an overpriced rickshaw ride that will get you out of deserted streets, or a first-class ticket that guarantees you a seat in the train. Remember that safety is never too expensive.
6. Learn the value of clothes.
You will find this advice in countless forums, and it really does help: dress like an Indian. I had a bad experience while wearing a t-shirt because it was showing off my figure. Indian clothes (kurtas and sarees) may not be the most breathable garments, but they offer many advantages. They are made for and by the Indian culture, so they will make sure nothing is too tight-fitting or revealing. They will help you blend in with the crowd and most importantly they will show your appreciation for their culture and will generate instant empathy. The more traditional the outfit, the better the results (i.e., a saree will get you better results than a kurta as long as you are wearing it properly), but I have heard that a distinctively Indian scarf will do the trick, even just thrown over jeans and a t-shirt. You can buy any of these in high-end designer shops, supermarkets, or street bazaars, although the nicest scarves are the ones sold in stores for tourists.
7. Keep your faith.
Indians overall are great people. Most of them will be willing to help you and will want you to be comfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Women will generally be happy to help you out, and you will usually find someone, whether male or female, who is willing to assist you. Don’t be afraid to slap a man, and especially don’t be afraid to make a scene. Although I never put it into practice, my Indian friends recommended screaming. They said guys will immediately come to your rescue, wanting to be heroes. I’ve also heard of good results from taking a shoe and just hitting a man with it (feet and shoes are considered very unclean).
8. Some practicalities.
Finally, there are some small practicalities you learn when living in the country, particular to the Indian culture, which can help you avoid dangerous situations. If you don’t learn any other Hindi word, at least learn “bhay” (rhymes with “high”). It means “brother” and as the most common insults revolve around sisters, the word helps set a clear boundary. You can use it as you would “sir”, although be warned that it is quite impolite to call someone higher-ranking than you “bhay” (such as teachers or officers). Use it to address rickshaw and store wallahs, or to decline any invitation you are not comfortable with (“No, bhay, I will not give you my phone number”). If somebody is touching you against your will you could simply take their hand and while moving it away from your body call them “bhay”. They will instantly understand the boundaries.
If you’re paying for a rickshaw for yourself, don’t allow the driver to pick up someone else. Being very clear and insistent helps, but you might have to resort to threatening to get out of the rickshaw for the point to come across.
Finally, travel by train. Use buses once you’ve grown used to India. Trains may be full of people, but there will be a conductor and sometimes a policeman on board, as well as security at the station. If the train is full you can always ask for the tourist quota, which will cost more but guarantees a ticket even when the train is full.
Because of the recent Delhi tragedy, the government has set up an emergency three-digit helpline for women in distress. This shows signs that the country is slowly becoming safer for women, and makes me hopeful. In Delhi this number is 181, and there are plans to create one number for all of India — while writing this article I couldn’t find any concrete information about what this number will be, so ask your embassy or research before you leave home. It’s worth finding out the emergency phone number for every state that you will be visiting, as well as the national numbers for the police and other emergency services.
Remember, always make the best decisions when it comes to your personal safety and health, be alert, and enjoy your trip.