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