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Holi. Photo: FaceMePLS

What to carry to make sure you are always dressed appropriately, how to deal with the lack of personal space, and other tips for female travelers heading to India.

MY PRE-ARRANGED HOTEL PICK-UP DOESN’T SHOW. In a jetlagged haze, I make my way out of the airport and into a taxi. I feel apprehensive trusting my safety and belongings to the hands of the driver.

He is chatty and establishes himself as my ‘friend.’ I start feeling at ease and let my guard down, slightly. Within minutes he stops to let another man into the cab. I protest. They both look at me like I’m crazy. “But Ma’am, this is my brother!” he yells. I stand my ground. I grab my backpack and threaten to jump out, but the passenger relents and leaves the cab. I am unnerved. Did I just avoid a scam or am I being excessively paranoid?

It can be tough traveling around India as a solo woman, and it’s important to use your common sense and maintain a sense of humor. Here are some tips to help you deal with the unfamiliar, and focus on the real reasons for your trip.

Unwanted attention

Paharganj. Photo by author.

My first few days I found the stares aggravating, but they’re something you have to get used to. The best thing is to ignore them, and avoid staring back as it may be misconstrued as a come-on. The stares are mostly friendly curiosity, but some Indian men have formed false notions of the sexual availability of foreign women and may move on from staring to invasive questions, whistling, following, and even groping. Challenge the adamant ogler in a loud, curt tone to attract the attention of onlookers. This is generally enough to get rid of your unwanted admirer. Keep conversations short with men who are inquiring about your marital status or commenting on your appearance.

Lack of personal space

Whether on a crowded bus or sardine-canned in the Delhi Metro, you should be prepared to share your personal space. But know where to draw the line. On one long trip, I experienced an unspoken cross-cultural comradeship when a sari-clad, elderly Rajasthani woman made a seat in my lap. But that feeling of female connection quickly disappeared the moment she got up and an able-bodied adult man eagerly jumped in her place.

Even when you think your personal space is safe, beware – a camel driver may ask to share your camel! As majestic as my camel trek through the Rajasthani desert was, it would have been a lot more comfortable if I had asserted I wasn’t comfortable with an uninvited passenger straddling my behind.

It is when personal space is lacking that you are more likely to be grabbed inappropriately. In crowded places, people might suggestively press up against you and rest errant limbs on your body. You should remove any displaced limbs and return them to the owner, and move away from the cheeky perpetrator. Do not feel intimidated about speaking up.

Appropriate dress

Local woman. Photo by author.

Dress conservatively to help ward off unwanted stares and sexual harassment. I found that when I dressed in local clothes like the salwar kameez (the dress and pants combination worn by many Indian women), I was hassled a little less by lewd men, rickshaw drivers, and shop owners. I even won the smiles of local women as we passed in the street.

Avoid skimpy clothing, and keep a dupatta (a kind of long, multi-purpose scarf) on hand to cover your shoulders and chest, and in more conservative areas your hips, butt, and hair all at the same time. Skirts should be long enough to cover most of your legs.

The dress code is strict when visiting religious sites, and you are usually encouraged to cover your head with a scarf if you visit a temple or mosque. And don’t mistake sari petticoats and cholis (sari blouses) for skirts: to locals, wearing a petticoat or choli in public is like walking around half dressed.

Getting around

I recommend you pre-arrange an airport pick-up via your hotel. If, as in my case, no-one shows up, a prepaid radio cab service such as EasyCabs is the safest option, and available in most cities. After calling the operator, you receive a text with the driver’s registration number. You can also book online. For regular prepaid taxis, make a point of writing down the car registration and name of the driver, and hand it to the airport police.

Avoid taking taxis alone at night when the streets are deserted. Never allow more than one man in the car, even if the driver insists it is his brother. I read this specific piece of advice in a guide book after my incident – and was relieved I’d used good judgment in getting myself out of a potentially unsafe situation.

Rickshaws. Photo by author.

On train rides, I was more comfortable in ladies-only carriages, though they do get very crowded with women and children. I also found I faced less hassle when I paid for a more expensive class such as the 2AC or 3AC – air conditioned carriages with either two or three tiered berths. Some trains have a flashier 1AC class which comes with locking doors. On overnight trains, it’s best to sleep on the top bunk so you get more privacy and put a bit of distance between you and potential gropers. Remember to lock up all your belongings.

Play it safe

Women have reported instances of sexual harassment from all sorts of people, including yoga teachers, masseurs, and other therapists. To keep safe, you should research the reputation of the therapist or instructor before going into a solo session. You can often find this information in guide books or by talking to fellow travelers. Also exercise caution when choosing a tour operator, and stick to companies recommended in guide books or endorsed by the Travel Agents Association of India. A reputable company may cost more, but investing those few extra rupees is well worth it.

Have you ever traveled to India? What advice would you give to female travelers?

Travel Safety


 

About The Author

Magdalena Matracki

Magdalena has spent 22 months backpacking on 5 continents. Currently her backpack is collecting dust in Calgary, Alberta where instead a lap top bag accompanies her on her journeys to work as a communications professional. Magdalena takes advantage of her proximity to the Rockies where she snowboards, bikes, and hikes.

  • Richard

    Some really useful tips! Thanks for an awesome piece Magdalena!

  • http://twitter.com/ColeenMonroe Coleen Monroe

    These tips work well in Latin America, too! I found that mimicking the dress of local women, maintaining some social distance with the use of “usted” instead of “tu,” and using a separation strategy like big sunglasses to cover my face were effective in most situations. 

    Occasionally I still got the odd wall-scaling, window-clinging, trying to talk his way past hostel security because he saw me in a window creeper. 

    http://reverseretrograde.wordpress.com/

  • Xtinex

    Hire a driver before arrival if possible- its relatively inexpensive and saves ALOT of hassle

  • Cynthia Douwes

    love the pictures
    great article!

  • Adele

    A really helpful article! I wish I had read something like this before I went to India two years ago! I fully agree that dressing in local garb helps a lot, I felt that it was a way to show that I knew the ropes and to not hassle me. 

  • http://twitter.com/YogiTraveler The Traveling Yogi

    Thank you for this article. I think it’s a shame we have to be extra careful as women, but I am glad you posted this article because women should be able to travel alone through India, and any part of the world for that matter. We just have to take the extra precautions. I’ve had many friends who have traveled through India tell me not to go on my own, which upset me in a way, but now I feel with these things in mind, I can do it. 

    • Mags_matracki

      Thanks for the comment!  I hear this a lot from women travelers who say they can’t see themselves travelling to a country such as India on their own – they are missing out! India was a challenging yet rewarding experience – but women do need to be prepared to be taken out of their comfort zone. And in the end -isn’t that why we travel?
      You can totally do it!
      Magdalena Matracki

  • Cat T

    Great article! I shared it with all my friends, you rock!

  • http://girlunstoppable.com Ekua

    “What to carry to make sure you are always dressed appropriately”… I traveled to India solo, so I understand your recommendations, but I think the word “appropriate” is inappropriate. What is “appropriate” for a woman to wear is whatever SHE wants to wear.

    It gets tiring as a female to constantly read safety tips that in their wording or tone seem to suggest that a  man has a right to treat a women poorly unless she conforms to a restrictive local dress code. That is not okay.

    When I went to India, I did cover up, even though my typical clothing would probably be considered fairly modest by U.S. standards. I would recommend to other women that they dress modestly in India, but I’d call it like it is – oppressive rules created by men and/or by men’s supposed inability to control themselves that are shielded from criticism by such things as culture and religion.

    Like I said, I understand your suggestions and followed them when I was in India, but I think women need to think more critically about this topic.

    • Gustavo

      “What is “appropriate” for a woman to wear is whatever SHE wants to wear.”
      In many Western cultures this is true.
      In the majority of world cultures, including India, this is not true.

      Nothing in the above article gives even the slightest impression that “a man has the right to treat a woman poorly.”
      What the above article does is present the reality that men do treat women poorly, and offers suggestions to protect yourself from such treatment.

      In an ideal world, these precautions would not be necessary, but our world is far from ideal.

      • http://girlunstoppable.com Ekua

        You’re seriously missing the point.

        “In many Western cultures this is true.
        In the majority of world cultures, including India, this is not true.”

        I wasn’t referring to a surface cultural level with my remarks about what is “appropriate” for women to wear. What I am saying is that absolutely nowhere in the world do men have the right to set the rules for what women should or should not wear, whether it’s through laws or lewd actions.

        Yes, I realize that is not how things work and if you read my comment thoroughly, you would see that I did in fact try to dress more conservatively in India despite my beliefs on this subject.

        To me, this article (like all of the other suggestion articles I’ve read about traveling in places where women are repressed) is all about women altering their clothing or their behavior in a certain place because men will treat you like crap otherwise. It shouldn’t have to be like that and I can only imagine how much more progress could be made if people spoke honestly about culturally approved inappropriate actions by males instead of focusing on all the things a woman should do to avoid those inappropriate actions.

        Like I said in my original comment, I understand where the author is coming from with these suggestions, but the word “appropriate” irks me. To me, it’s a backwards approach to say that what’s “appropriate” to wear is essentially a result of others inappropriate actions.

        • Amool

          I think the wider issue, which you might find that Magdalena has highlighted here, is that when you visit a country you adapt to your surroundings rather than expect your surroundings to adapt to you. For whatever reasons, if you were to offend the prevailing social norms, the onus lies on you for not observing what happens around you, or heeding advice that experienced travellers like Magdalena put forward.

          On the issue of the word “appropriate”, it is not for anyone else to decide what is considered appropriate and what isn’t. Anything that is considered as being acceptable in the very least is to be considered appropriate. Magdalena has, once again, highlighted what is considered acceptable in the area. It would be helpful to readers of this article if a fellow visitor like yourself were to post your own experiences rather than criticize individual wording. Political correctness has its place, but this is not it.

        • TJ14

          Deluded feminists like you often get lost in the semantics of an issue. The author was not at all wrong in using the world ‘appropriate.’ The definition of the word is ‘that which is proper in the circumstances’. So in light of the situation in India, her suggestion of modest clothing as being ‘appropriate clothing’, was entirely apt.

          Besides, what makes you so strident about the notion that no where in the world should there be modesty laws or expectations? Don’t get me wrong. I am all for liberty and freedom to wear whatever the hell one wants to. But it is the choice of the people of that nation to decide. Imposing western ideas of individualism on all nations with a sweeping brush is neither your decision nor mine to make.

    • TJ14

      It ticks me off when people completely forget to contextualize a point and get off on a rant about their ideal bubble of a world. In an ideal world that respects liberty entirely, yes, a woman should feel safe enough to wear or not wear whatever clothes if she so wishes. That is a world we all hope to to see one day where women are not at threat of harassment of any kind. But unfortunately we are NOT in that kind of a world, a certainly India is one step behind western notions of propriety.

      I would suggest conservative muslims to dress in western attire while traveling in the United States. Why? I have seen many number of times how on airplanes, people in traditional Arabic attire get treated differently in western countries. And I don’t think I need to go into the reasons why. Are such attitudes justified? Absolutely not! People must be free to wear what they wish. But in light of discrimination that people face, the rational choice would be to choose (if possible) clothing that doesn’t bring unwanted attention on the person in question.

      Sure you could be a travel activist and pay no heed to such suggestions. You will soon become a nuisance not only for yourself but for the country that you are in as well.

  • lixiangl
  • http://www.facebook.com/me.sajeesh Sajeesh Radhakrishnan

    Dear ms.Magdalena, Its btw a nice article… but am frm India, so for me it was like we gave u a bad experience/Hurdles… We suggest you to get a friend in the destination country and keep them with u fa the whole trip. Whateva u came across, i think its because of unawareness of the local culture and the life patterns… we wish you to come again to India.. May you will give some more +ve guidance nxt tym… i wish!!!

  • Oceana46

    Hi,

    Catherine Tsenos forwarded me your blog and anyone that has been to India can relate to every single situation you discuss – at the end of the day your truly right about keeping your sense of humor.  I had to refer to my sense of humor as almost a friend getting me through moments of hysteria.  I appreciate you blog!

    Koirnn

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=770859971 Maria Revollo

    Hi, I really need help. I am traveling to India next week and the friend that was supposed to accompany me bailed out at the last minute. I really want to see the Taj Mahal but I’ve been told that it is dangerous for a woman traveling alone. How can I get to Agra from Delhi in a safe way and how can I get in contact with other travelers? Help!!

    • Mags_matracki

      Hi Maria,
      You can take the train from Delhi to Agra for a day trip. I didn’t find the area to be that unsafe, but you may face some hassle that I covered in the article when travelling by yourself, which can get a little unnerving.
      If you are anxious about being on your own, I would suggest hiring a driver who will take you to Agra through your hotel/hostel. It may cost a fair bit more but it will take a lot of the hassle out of the travel.
      I think most hostels offer day trips and sightseeing tours as well – just make sure to book with a reputable hostel or company. A  guide book can help.
      This is such a popular trip from Delhi that you may find other travelers in a hostel who are looking to make the same trip. I was a bit nervous going to Agra as it was on my second day in India but I met two great girls from London who have been travelling around for a while and knew the ropes.
      I hope this helps. Good luck!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002431343024 Rachel Howdy

    Solo female travelling is definitely gaining in popularity. Great to see that women are getting bolder and more adventurous :) 

    I’ve got an article here about solo female travelling too, http://www.sojourns.com.sg/blog/feature/travelling-solo-the-world-from-a-single-womans-perspective/.

    Just to share!

  • Sjvakil

    The situation for a solo woman is much safer in Mumbai – even us Mumbai women feel wary in Delhi and other parts of North India. There’s a great cultural divide between the metropolises and rural areas too.

  • Krys C Wanders

    If you’re flying into Delhi, you can arrange transport into the city quite easily (and safely) through the government booth in the airport (when exiting ‘arrivals’ turn right and keep walking until you reach the end of the booths); they’ll give you an honest price and ride. Just make sure you note the number of your taxi post and don’t let anyone on the walk to it convince you it’s fine to just jump in with them.
    Absolutely agree that a scarf is essential – the longer, the better. A wedding ring (even a fake one) never hurts, either.
    Great article and advice, Magdalena. Felt that your opening summed up the dichotomy of ‘being afraid of offending’ and ‘wanting to protect yourself’ really well.

    • Jody Persaud

      I’m am gonna try the ring advice…it might be fun to pretend a little too :)

  • Jody Persaud

    Thank you SO much for this! I googled ”foreign women traveling alone in India” out of a bit of fear and curiosity while planning my trip to India next month. There’s alot in here I needed to see to pay attention to, but I love the humor and adventure within it too. Much love! xoxo

  • sonya

    In addition to the good tips provided by the author, may I suggest women travelers to India get in touch with a woman’s venture (trailblzr59@hotmail.com) that provides safe and
    comfortable home stays in Delhi/Gurgaon/North India, assistance to first-time visitors as well as safe, fascinating, economical journeys into the northern and western
    parts of India
    for small groups of women.

  • sonya

    women travelers to India have a viable and safe option: a women’s venture (trailblzr59@hotmail.com) that provides safe and comfortable home stay in Delhi/Gurgaon , assistance of all kinds including airport pick-up and drop-off. It also organizes safe, fascinating, economical journeys into the northern and western parts of India for small groups of women, offering them authentic, informative experiences of a wide variety of Indian flavours: spirituality, culture, history, adventure, festivals, rural life, cuisine, handicrafts, people, business etc.

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