India’s women’s safety is a hot issue. Many women have raised reservations about travelling there, and others have chosen not to. I’ve never gone to India or been a woman, but this is an important topic.
My first experience with India was behind the wheel of an auto-rickshaw.
In 2011, my friend Citlalli and I participated in the Rickshaw Run, driving one of India’s ubiquitous three-wheeled vehicles 2,000 miles across the country.
We spent three hours in an 18-mile Bihar traffic gridlock on our sixth morning. After two hours, I needed a break from dodging trucks, buses, and cows, so we stopped.
20 men encircled our rickshaw immediately. When a white-haired merchant approached us, Citlalli and I cautiously greeted hello to break the atmosphere as two foreign women. He held two little cups of fragrant, steaming chai.
I tried to explain that we had no tiny chance to pay him for the tea, but he said, “I may be poor, but I still have a heart.”
Why Go to India?
I know that Indian women and international visitors face staring, groping, stalking, and rape. A female visitor may ponder if India is worth the risk and trouble. Why not bypass it for easier destinations?
One reason: No country fascinates and frustrates more.
It’s worth it to travel to India, even though it requires extra caution. Farmers, pharmacists, retailers, and teachers touched me with their generosity and compassion.
The Bihar chai seller was only the start. I had Delhi belly in Bhubaneswar and a hotel worker brought me yoghourt with sugar; I was waiting for a friend’s flight at 1:00 am and a guy I struck up a conversation with invited us to his sister’s wedding the following week; and I jumped off a train in Chennai and a man led me across the street to buy gauze and disinfectant for my skinned knee.
Stereotyping a billion-person nation is impossible, and terrible experiences there are inevitable. The challenge is to reject such events while focusing on the positive. India requires this naïve choice.
Based on my own experience in India and advice from other women who have been there extensively, here are 11 tips to avoid negative circumstances and stay open to favourable ones:
1. Do Your Homework
Spend time researching India and its customs before arriving, as you would for any destination. Go in with your eyes open, having educated and prepared yourself, and know that what awaits you may be very different.
Since 2009, Beth Whitman, founder, and CEO of Wanderlust and Lipstick and WanderTours has led female-only and co-ed excursions to India without a single safety issue.
Beth advises against visiting high-crime areas. “India has similar sites. Check guidebooks and forums to see if your destination fits.”
India’s preparation was mental for me. I felt like I was going to another planet before my first trip.
India was not a beach vacation or city break in Europe. I had to worry about what immunizations to get, what would happen if I got sick, and whether I would be safe.
2. Dress Well
Be respectful of India’s country by covering your shoulders and legs and watching your cleavage.
Fabindia or local marketplaces sell kurtas and shalwar kameez suits, which you can wear. This doesn’t guarantee your safety or modify men’s behaviour, but don’t call attention to yourself.
Only Goa’s famous beaches have become westernised. Although bikinis are more accepted here, you may still attract unwelcome attention.
3. Recognize When Doctoring the Truth Can Help You
I hate road lies. I think it’s vital to learn about different cultures and share our habits when appropriate. Travel reciprocity is one of my favourite things.
I enjoyed talking to Indians about our cultures because they were surprised that I was unmarried at 27 and travelled alone.
One night in Mumbai, an Indian man at another table wanted to join me for supper. I enjoyed our conversation, but he asked if we could go for a drink or meet again the next night. I declined because I had arrangements with friends.
Consider whether a white lie might protect you. Beth Whitman advises this for solo hotel stays. “Mention a husband or lover arriving soon, and don’t talk to male personnel. Instead, befriend any woman.
(Matt says: This website has several female traveller articles about safety and blending in. Click here for tips and stories.
4. Reserve an Upper Berth on Train Journeys
Everyone has a wonderful Indian rail story—the couple who helped them get off at the proper station, the family who insisted on sharing their dal and chapatis, the college student who urged them to wake him if there was a problem. India is the only place where the journey is as pleasant as the destination.
But safeguards are necessary. Book an upper berth. It will keep your bags safe throughout the day and give you solitude when you sleep at night.
Indian trains are busy both day and night: merchants sell food and drinks, while people get on and off. You’ll appreciate a private top berth at night after enjoying the excitement.
Citlalli Milan, a writer, and actor who resided in Udaipur, Rajasthan, for four years, advises against 2nd class A/C.
“When travelling alone, I always book a sleeper train. It’s full of people—women, children, and travellers—making [unwelcome interactions] harder.”
5. Don’t Arrive at a New Destination at Night
Avoid late-night arrivals and departures. This is for safety and issue—cunning touts will prey on the disoriented and unprepared. To feel confident leaving the airport or railway station, book at least your first night’s lodging in advance.
Avoid travelling at night via public transportation (particularly empty buses and trains); use prepaid taxis or auto-rickshaws instead.
Even then, Mariellen Ward, founder of the India-inspired travel blog Breathe Dream Go and the WeGoSolo community for solo female travellers, advises women to note the vehicle’s licence plate, make a call on their cell phone (actual or staged), and say the plate number and destination to the driver.
Travel writer Sophie Collard visited India in 2012, just before the Delhi gang rape, and received this advice: “A female journalist said, ‘Girl, you must grab one of these,’ and pulled out pepper spray and told me I could get it from the chemist [pharmacist], so I did, and it made me feel comfortable. I carried it in London too.”
6. Be Assertive
India’s head wobble might imply yes, no, maybe, not now, or “we’ll see,” thus it’s no country it’s hard to say no. As a single woman, this is sometimes required, just like ignoring difficult talks.
When travelling alone as a woman, especially in India, you must protect yourself, whether verbally or silently.
Markets need the most assertiveness. A polite “no thank you” may not help you get past persistent and persuasive merchants. As unpleasant as it felt, I would sometimes say “no” or “nah?” in Hindi.
7. Body Language
The struggle between guarding your heart and opening it may be particularly important to how you treat men in India and the subconscious messages you give. “Never give them any form of clue that you could be interested in them,” advises Beth Whitman.
Remember that caressing someone’s arm while conversing may be misunderstood in a conservative country like India. While being open to guys, keep your distance, especially on public transportation where personal space is limited.
I met Mercy, her elderly mother, and a huge group of male university students on a train from Panjim, Goa, to Mumbai. Despite Mercy’s warnings, I enjoyed getting to know the students.
I understood why she did so—they were boisterous and had been in Goa on holiday—but I could tell they meant no harm (and I’m still in touch with one student via Facebook).
Men in India are guarded but friendly.
8. Do nothing you wouldn’t do at home
It’s true that travel opens you up to new experiences and pushes you out of your comfort zone, but be smart and ask yourself if you would do something at home. Hitchhiking, walking out alone at night, and drinking with strangers is dangerous anywhere.
Citlalli Milan advises getting to know someone first: “When I accepted an invitation or went with someone for tea, it was after a few weeks or months of saying hi on the street and making sure they knew who I was and I knew a bit more about them… Interacting with locals is fantastic, but always with prudence and cultural awareness.”
9. Consider Travelling in a Group
Intrepid or WanderTours tours may help you adjust to India, which might be scary for first-time visitors.
“I am looking at group tours again, where I am promised the sense of ‘safety in numbers’ and where I won’t be travelling on trains and buses on my own,” says Becki Enright, who had a rocky first trip to India. I know I will stick out, so those are my first safety measures.”
Travelling alone requires trusting your intuition without friends or family to consult. You must trust yourself before trusting others on the road. Before going to India alone, build self-confidence.
10. Expect Mass Photo-Taking Sessions.
In India, if you’re suddenly surrounded by photo requests, especially at historic locations, go with the flow for as long as you’re comfortable.
I was invited to pose with at least a dozen families or groups of young guys at the Taj Mahal, the Gateway of India in Mumbai, and a beach in Puri, Orissa. It’s harmless, yet odd.
11. Start or Regroup in India Outside Big Cities
Harassment may occur even if you follow these and other online tips. Don’t leave India if you’re frightened. Process, heal, and regroup.
Consider visiting Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and surrounded by the Himalayas; Jaisalmer, a historic fort city in the Thar Desert; Fort Cochin, a colonial town with easy access to Kerala’s calm backwaters; and lesser-known Goa sites like Colomb Bay, between Palolem and Patnem beaches.
I propose starting your time in India in one of these spots, where I discovered peace and relief from being on guard.
The Golden Triangle—Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur—may be too crowded to adjust to India.
Keep an Open Heart
Although India is challenging to travel and being the focus of attention might be stressful, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I hope the tips above will help you feel less watched and make unpleasant circumstances better.
Remember that staying safe in India is part of a larger issue: being a woman in India. Female travellers face threats that Indian women have faced their whole lives and will continue to face when we leave.
India’s safety is straightforward. Like anywhere else, it requires wisdom and instinctual listening. Trust your instincts and accept Indian friendliness.
India is a dynamic and turbulent country with unimaginable beauty and warmth.