Travel Safety for Women in India, By a Female Traveler

India could well be one of the most rapidly-changing cultures on earth – and these changes are leading to tensions in society and confusion for visitors. Our local insider Mariellen shares her strategies for safe travel, especially for solo female travelers.

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India’s massive population of 1.3 billion, ancient culture, and rapidly changing attitudes combine to create one of the world’s most fascinating destinations.

Then VS Now

In 2005, when I first started traveling in India, the question of safety was not as topical as it is today.

I knew it wouldn’t be an easy place to travel, but I was more worried about getting sick, feeling lonely, or just not being able to cope with the “heat and dust.”

Even as a solo female traveler, who had never done such an ambitious trip – six months across the length and breadth of the subcontinent – I wasn’t particularly worried about my safety.

Times have changed. Now, safety – especially travel safety for female solo travelers – is a hot topic.

For the record, I have spent a total of three years traveling and living in India, over the past 12 years.

I’m based in Delhi, which is the most notorious city in the country, and when I travel, I do so almost always alone.

In all this time, I’ve had very few uncomfortable incidents. I’ve been stared at a lot, followed several times by creepy guys, and groped twice. But, I’ve never felt threatened or unsafe.

From Eve Teasing, to Sexual Harassment

I was in India when the horrific gang rape of a young Indian woman happened in December 2012. I was in Delhi when she died of her injuries about 10 days later.

I saw the country erupt in anger and felt the paradigm shift. The colloquial phrase “Eve teasing” became the much more accurate “sexual harassment” overnight.

A media onslaught followed, provoking several countries to issue travel advisories for India, and for the country to be painted as the “rape capital of the world.”

Since then, the issue of women’s safety has gained a lot of prominence.

Is India Unsafe?

I’ve been asked many times whether I think India is an unsafe travel destination. My answer is: That’s the wrong question. It’s not about safe or unsafe destinations – anything can happen anywhere. Though, there are obvious exceptions to this, such as war-torn countries.

I think it’s far more worthwhile to ask about how you travel, rather than where. Are you practising what I call safe travel strategies?

I also think that making women feel fearful of travel is a modern form of purdah (seclusion or secrecy), with sexist and misogynistic undertones.

If you look at statistics, most attacks against women take place in the home. Most women are raped or harmed by men they know.

There are no guarantees in life, but if you mitigate risk, and travel with confidence within your comfort zone, I think you can go just about anywhere you want.

I am comfortable and confident in India, and I think that’s what’s contributed to my enjoyment of travel there.

Strategies to Stay Safe in India

Here are a few safe travel strategies that I think are particularly important for India, and for female travelers.

1. Research

Do your research, and make sure you know and understand the culture before embarking.

For example, in India, the genders relate differently, and the basis of the culture is still very traditional.

You can’t relate to the opposite sex in India in the same way that you would in a western country. A casual, friendly word or gesture could be perceived as an invitation.

2. Dress Appropriately

Aside from a few pockets, such as South Mumbai and Goa, India is still a very traditional society. Which means you should follow the rules of society and dress modestly.

Most of the time I’m in India, I dress modestly, and very often, Indian clothing – such as the three-piece suit known as a salwar kameez.

This inspires respect from locals and makes me blend in a bit more… as much as a tall-ish, blonde Canadian woman can blend in.

3. Attitude

As a Canadian, I was brought up to be polite. But when you travel alone, in a place like India, it’s more important to be confident than polite.

Trust your instincts. If you feel that someone is a potential threat, or is harassing you, walk away.

Don’t bother with politeness. Ignoring people who stare, beggars, and the overly-intrusive is the best way to get rid of them.

If you are in trouble, don’t be afraid to call out for help. Social shaming plays a big role in Indian society, and the chances are good that aunties and uncles will crowd around and defend you – and heap shame on the badmash who troubled you.

For more, read my top tips for women traveling in India, here.

*This article was updated in May 2017

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10 Comments

  • lisa said

    My friend and i are from South Africa, we back packed India last year from Goa, Varanassi to Bodhgaya catching trains, planes and taxi's and never felt threatend once. We wore clothing that covered most of our bodies and when someone tried to hussle us we just acted like we did not understand and moved on. You have to have patience and understanding to be in such a place where the cultural differences are so far apart but just remind youself why you were attracted to visit there in the first place, once you strip away the layers it is beautiful and was one of the best experiences in my life. Try not to over prepare it will make you anxious and therefore you wont enjoy, just go with the flow. Made some good friends there... one place i will keep going back.

  • Dorothy said

    I travelled India with a girlfriend twenty years ago and did not really have any hassle. This year I went with my partner and was glad he was there. India is not as safe as it was and even as a couple we were warned not to go to Old Delhi at night. I have travelled a lot and will be going back again this year but again with my partner. Also in places like Jaipur and Jodhpur we were always the only foreigners walking in the street..nice but dangerous on your own. I love India and Indian people but be cautious and enjoy!

  • Lisa said

    I am currently travelling in india for the first time. I get lots of stares, and lots of people taking my picture, but I happily pose with those who ask me and take it in good humour! The only real negative I have experienced so far (touch wood!) is that a man grabbed my breast in an alley in Varanasi last night! He was walking towards me and as he passed threw his hand out, squeezed my boob and carried on walking! I shouted at him and he just smirked at me. I was shocked and it was unpleasant, but I'm just thankful it wasn't anything worse. And before anyone says "why were you walking down a dark alley alone at night?" I was literally a step behind my husband (avoiding cow pats and making room for this man to pass in the narrow gali) and we were walking back from dinner at a restaurant about 10 metres from the door of my hotel.

  • Kay said

    I also went to India for the first time in 2005 and was warned by the locals to dress humbly and to not go out on my own. I would not have gone to India on my own anyway. I went with a group and although I've travelled a lot on my own, my feeling about India was different. There is definitely a male superiority tradition on a general level, meaning of course, not all Indian males treat women as second-third-fourth-last class citizens, but certainly I felt like a piece of meat when I walked around, and the way I was looked at made me feel very uncomfortable... and I was wearing a long white skirt and Indian blouse. But it wasn't until an Indian family came to visit me in the West that I realized "holy cow!" there is no difference in their attitude. My kind and welcoming western way was so hugely misinterpreted by one of the men that I spent most of my energy trying to keep the leech away from me. Needless to say, they will not be welcome back.

  • Kelly said

    I'm a very seasoned traveler who always dresses modestly, never showing flesh. I've travelled solo in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa & Middle East, Europe & South east Asia. In my travels I've had very rare harassment or felt danger. India was the exception.

    My husband and I went to India for 1 month on our honeymoon, backpacking. I was covered, loose clothes & never alone. I've never had so many problems with men trying grab me, leaning over my husband to make lewd tongue gestures, hand gestures at me. We were followed on more than one occasion. Men would come into our train car & just stare at me. I normally don't mind being stared at all, if you look different that should be expected, but there was something about the looks that unsettled me in a way that I'd never experienced before. I just kept my hair covered (blonde) & sunglasses on - trying to cover up even more. I was shocked & upset by all of this. I have no desire to ever go back. I'm glad to hear that other women have had positive experiences. I followed all my rules to be modest, respectful etc , including those by the author & had a terrible experience.

  • Maria said

    It's obvious people like Kelly here are more interested in hammering India's image than discuss women's safety.

  • Maria said

    I'm a Swiss woman who's lived alone in Bangalore for more than 2 years. I've travelled a lot across India, mostly with a group, but a few times alone as well. Yes I get stared at especially in areas where whites are not common, I have had my purse grabbed from me, I have been groped a few times and I was stalked for an hour once. But these have been by far the exceptions to the rule in my experiences. Most of the time I can confidently say that I did not feel any more unsafe in Bangalore, then I have felt in many European and American cities.

    India still has to go a long way to rectify it's issues with regard to how it treats women, and there are big problems with its patriarchal syatems and social attitudes. But the narrative that a woman traveller here will get groped and molested at every corner by crowds of leering men (how Kelly narrated it) is a plain exaggeration.

  • Raghav said

    India is a paradox, on one hand you will find such upright and righteous people as no where else in the world and on the other plain monsters!Eventually you meet such people and there will be unwanted attention or perhaps even worse.it's a shame such elements call themselves Indian, a consequence of a thousand years of slavery and rape of hindu culture.Being Indian I am sure any lady travelling here will face a certain form of indignity whatsoever she may do to avoid it but there will be many more who will be kind and helpful.

  • Jill said

    Maria: since you have singled out Kelly- I will respond to your comment by saying it seems like a rude reaction. To not let someone share their honest experience without calling them down is an odd choice, when you could just share your own experience and let the readers make their own impression based on the experiences of many. As a woman commenting on this article for women, I feel you owe more respect for the experience of other women. If they had a negative experience, that is theirs to share and it is not your place to minimize it. It is fantastic that you haven't had the same unfortunate experiences but it is also completely realistic that a solo female traveller have the experience Kelly did.

    In fact, I had almost the same experience as Kelly when I spent 6 weeks solo traveling in India. I too am a very seasoned traveler- I have been to 43 countries (maybe more at this point-I've lost track), never on a package tour. I had been told that India was a difficult destination by other female friends who had solo traveled, but I shrugged it off. The rude awakening for me was what my friends had wanted me about was also my experience. Boy, was it draining to be there alone. I wish I had taken heed and waited to go with a friend - so I could have enjoyed India for the wonders it does offer.

    I was also there during the Delhi rape and found it a truly uncomfortable time to be there. It was interesting to witness how this disturbing and tragic event that rocked the world was perceived within the country itself.

    Even before this terrible tragedy happened, I myself had multiple negative experiences, luckily though unnerving I came out relatively unscathed. I am a cautious traveler, who covered my hair, did not make much in the way of eye contact with men, and wore Indian clothing. I still had people griping me through bus windows, telling me I would probably get raped, etc.

    I did have some beautiful experiences in India- lots of them actually. Unfortunately, the overwhelming feeling I have when it comes to my recollection of the trip is negative- it has been 4 years and I still haven't even looked through my photos. I still remember the sense of relief that followed me for several weeks after I had left India and was traveling around East Africa.

    I would never dissuade anyone from traveling to India- but I would not recommend travelling to India alone (as a woman) if you have the option of traveling with another person. The few times I managed to link up with other travelers was awesome! It was a million times less stressful and far more comfortable. If I ever return to India, I will do so with a male companion.

    Hopefully you have an experience more like Maria and less like Kelly- but I think it is important to acknowledge both types of experiences are within the realm of possibility.

    Travel safe!

  • diane said

    Thank you Jill for expressing freedom of thought, opinion and experiences. I appreciate everyones experiences -- good, bad, etc. After reading comments, think I will try to go to India on an organized tour --any recommendations for tour groups, companies ?

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