In December 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey, known to the world as The Delhi Rape Victim, died of injuries to her intestines. Think about that what that means. I won’t go into detail, but needless to say, it is a truly horrific way to die and from the most violating injuries. I felt intense sorrow for this woman’s pain and death at the hands of five rapists.
In March 2013, A Swiss couple was camping in India and they were attacked, the woman gang-raped. At this news, my friend and fellow traveler Kelly discussed what happened. Should she go to India still? Is it safe? These incidences made me sad, truly sad, but, I reasoned, they are not the entire culture. I defended. It would be like visitors not coming to America because of Sandy Hook. I thought cultural change would happen in India with the protests that these events spawned. I told myself it would all get better and that India was still a transformative and fascinating place for a woman to travel. I realize now, that I was wrong.
Should I Travel to India?
Through my blog and at travel events, I frequently get asked this question by American women who are considering a trip to the subcontinent. Most recently, a blog reader who wanted to volunteer at the Mother Theresa Mission Charities wrote to me and asked, “Is it safe?” to visit India. Recent events and specifically the post on CNN about a University of Chicago student’s experience in India as a “in a traveler’s heaven and a woman’s hell” and the reporting of the horrific gang rape of a 22-year-old in Mumbai a few days later shine even more light onto these questions.
In response to these questions, I was going to write a blog post as a collection of advice: yes, yes…go to India, it’s transformative. I had amazing experiences there in 2008 and 2010, just wear conservative clothes and follow some common-sense advice. Here was my first draft at that advice:
Don’t make eye contact. Don’t smile at strange men. Don’t laugh or flirt, as this may be taken as an invitation. Don’t go out at night. Don’t accept help from strange men.
Essentially, hide yourself, don’t be noticed, and certainly don’t act as a person who feels safe walking down the street or being open to the kindness of strangers. This collection of “don’ts” did not seem to be the right advice to give to future travelers.
“Authentic” Travel in India
In the travel community, there is a loud clamor for authentic travel. “Travel as the locals do” is a popular headline in tourism marketing and magazines. It’s a more modern version of “going off the beaten path” and to go beyond tourist sites in hopes of seeing the real culture and place. In India, sadly, being harassed is part of the “authentic” travel experience for women. An article on the Indian news site FirstPost points out that the normal daily existence of India women is the expectation of harassment: “And the privileged among us who preach safety to white women are so accustomed to our home-car-office-restaurant prison that we no longer notice our gilded cage; we are so inured to the head-down-no-eye-contact existence, we view it as “normal”, even “smart” behaviour.”
If, as a woman traveler, you want to do all the things recommended on travel blogs and magazines to “travel locally” and “authentically” like taking public transport, staying where the locals stay, and eating where they eat, then you are opening yourself up to being harassed and possibly harmed. Most likely, you will be stared at and photographed, groped and touched, and surrounded by people who were not the audience of “no means no” education campaigns. As a visitor, you are not immune to this harmful treatment and why should you be? Our Indian sisters are subject to harassment and violent behavior on a daily basis, as part of the culture.
According to a Thomson Reuters report as reported in Forbes, India is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times after the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012, author Sonia Faleiro wrote, “India has laws against rape; seats reserved for women in buses, female officers; special police help lines. But these measures have been ineffective in the face of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. It is a culture that believes that the worst aspect of rape is the defilement of the victim, who will no longer be able to find a man to marry her — and that the solution is to marry the rapist.”
My Own Experiences Were OK, But Still…
In my own experience traveling in India at first in 2008 and then in 2010, I can tell you that I was OK. Over a total of five months in country, I didn’t feel that my safety was threatened. I can write about the many times when I was not harassed. I was the beneficiary of kind behavior by men, men who didn’t appear to have an agenda other than helping me. I can tell you about the time there was a train strike and a man in my shared rickshaw made sure I got the train station from the bus station. He waited until I had sorted things out with my departures before he went on his way. I can tell you about the friendly Sikh hotel clerk who summoned a team of hotel workers to dispose of a cockroach in my hotel room. Once the cockroach was gone, the three men promptly and professionally left my room.
Alone, I walked unharmed and without harassment through the cobblestone streets in Fort Cochin, Kerala and the wide seaside roadways in Mumbai. I took many rickshaw rides where the only conversation was haggling for the price and the only glance in the rearview mirror was at traffic. I slept undisturbed on long bus rides and walked in reflective silence through temples with groups of Indian pilgrims- men and women. I took the crowded public bus in Kolkata where the passengers respected personal space as much anyone could. I slept soundly on the overnight train across Bihar, considered to be the most dangerous state in India. These many moments were hallmarks of an overall safe time traveling across India.
Unfortunately, although my trip was about 99% safe, I can also write about the time when a boy reached out his hand and slapped my breast from a moving motorbike in Delhi. Or the many young men who held their cellphone in front for their face while pointing the camera lens at me, resulting in a skin-crawling, shivery feeling that could only be felt like a violation. Or how a Japanese woman in my Reiki class in Kerala was brought to an abandoned street by her rickshaw driver and groped until she wiggled away and ran for safety.
These were the experiences that I didn’t want to talk about when answering the “Should I go to India?” question. I chose to ignore the “bad” stories in my recollections and advice to other women travelers because most of my own trip was wonderful. But now, in light of harassment against travelers and sexual violence against Indian citizens, I would be doing a disservice if I said it would be safe to, as a woman, travel in India. The incidences broadcasted on the world stage are pieces of information you must consider when making a decision to travel to India.
I Cannot Recommend That You Will Go and Be Safe
Even though I had one of the best experiences of my life in India and there is plenty of evidence to suggest woman have safe, Eat-Pray-Love experiences in India all the time, I don’t recommend traveling to India as a woman and expecting safety. If you do go, realize that you are entering a culture that, overall, does not value the safety of women and may be treated accordingly. The damaging harassment reported by women travelers are a symptom of the deep wounds of gender inequality and danger felt by Indian women for many years, on a daily basis.
What I do recommend is going there not as a traveler, but as a witness and a guest. Use your connections in America to connect with local women. Visit them to understand their lives and what they feel can be done to make their India safer. Record and share your experiences of the good and the bad because it’s a “lighter” version of what Indian women deal with on a daily basis. Visit or donate to organizations like Global Fund for Women and Half the Sky that are working to make the world and India, a subcontinent of more than a billion people, safer for women.
Foreign tourism is an $18 Billion (USD) business for India and the country is currently feeling the pain of decreased visitors in the last year. Perhaps the community leaders in India will connect the dots and support programs and cultural norms that make it safe for all women to travel in India – be it to the office or the Taj Mahal. That is my hope.
I write this post from an American perspective, residing in a country with its own violence problem. I’ve also been a big proponent of women traveling to India, especially as a solo trip like I had done. To answer the question “Should I travel to India?” I give my answer: yes, you should. There is nothing like the silence of the Taj Mahal at dawn, the sacred ceremonies on the Ganges, the peaceful green waterways in Kerala, and eating samosas and sweets in Kolkata. It is “a traveler’s heaven.” But is it safe? No, it’s not, it is a “women’s hell.” It’s not safe for a woman to travel around India until it’s safe to BE a woman in India.