India, as a travel destination, doesn’t have a great reputation. High-profile cases of rape and molestation have had travellers asking whether it’s really worth the hassle. Women travellers can be especially put off by all the advice and warnings available online, and may ultimately decide that as the world is so large, they’d rather go elsewhere.
India is not easy, it’s true. If your idea of perfect travel is pristine beach resorts and trouble-free relaxation, then India is probably not the place for you. But if you’re interested in the culture, cuisine, landscape, history, don’t mind roughing it a little, and are only being held back by safety concerns that come with being a woman, here are six reasons why you shouldn’t be afraid to travel to India.
1. India will toughen you up.
I’ve never had a problem being assertive, but my first trip to India was made immediately after living in Japan for 18 months. In Japan, speaking one’s opinion too forcefully — especially if you’re a woman — is frowned upon, and assertion is certainly not a desirable character trait. After a year and a half, this attitude drove me mad, but India was just the antidote I needed. What do you do when there’s no break in traffic and you really need to cross the road? You step out in front of it, slowly, and the cars will go around you. (Just don’t try this with a bus.) What do you do if someone brushes a little too close on the street and his hand grazes your butt? You swear at him, loudly. What do you do if someone blatantly cuts in front of you in a line, thinking you’re a meek foreigner who won’t say anything? You shout at them to get behind you. What do you do if someone short-changes you, thinking you won’t notice? You demand what you’re owed. Indians generally expect this behaviour from each other, and will be dutifully cowed if reprimanded by a foreign woman. Every time I’ve returned from a long trip to India, I’ve had to re-tame my ever-bubbling quick temper.
Having said that, it’s important to recognise when someone is really acting out of line and when they’re not. The worst example of obnoxious tourist behaviour I witnessed in India was from a Belgian woman, who shouted at our tour guide when he asked for her entry fee for the palace we were visiting in Tamil Nadu. He wanted to gather everybody’s money so he could buy the tickets on our behalf, rather than all of us waiting out in the hot sun. But her rude behaviour spoilt his gesture for everyone.
2. The modest dress code isn’t necessarily to keep women down; it’s actually very practical.
Many women, understandably, don’t like to be told how they should or shouldn’t dress. As a feminist, I fully support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants, in whatever situation, without fear of assault. But needing to dress conservatively while a guest in someone else’s country shouldn’t be a reason not to visit.
India is huge and culturally diverse, so what is considered appropriate female dress varies widely. In Kolkata, many younger women still wear saris, whereas their counterparts in Delhi or Bombay generally prefer Western clothing or kurtis (tunics) and leggings. In the big cities, it’s fine to show your shoulders, upper arms and lower legs, whereas in smaller or more conservative towns, it may not always be a good idea. Foreign visitors are less likely to recognise these variations immediately, so are better off erring on the side of modesty. Cotton or silk tunics, baggy trousers and a light scarf are easily available, cheap and attractive, and have the added benefit of protecting from the intense sun and copious dust.
3. The harsh truth is, India is safer for foreign women than it is for Indian women.
Most cases of rape, molestation or other violence in India happen to Indian women. In 2014, over 300,000 crimes against women were reported to the police. Domestic violence accounted for more than a third of these cases. In 2013 and 2014, a handful of foreign tourists reported being raped in India. Even taking into account that many cases of rape, domestic violence and molestation go unreported, it is overwhelmingly clear that Indian women are far more at danger in India than foreign women. Indian women — particularly those who live in rural areas, or who belong to lower castes — encounter much more violence, much more often.
This doesn’t mean that as a foreign woman you should pretend this doesn’t happen. But it does mean that as a visitor to India, you’re unlikely to get caught up in the caste-based or domestic violence that happens every day. If it bothers you — and it should — there are many ways that you can help in a small way, such as shopping at charity-run organisations that employ female artisans, such as the Hansiba clothing boutiques run by the Self Employed Women’s Association, or buying feminist-oriented books from one of India’s feminist presses, like Delhi-based Zubaan.
4. In many situations, you’re going to be treated with more respect than you’d think.
When staying alone in the southern city of Hyderabad, which has a large Muslim population, I found that many restaurants had a separate ‘women and families’ section. This might sound patronising to some people, but they’re intended so that women can go out in public without male relatives and still feel comfortable. At my favourite dosa restaurant in Hyderabad, I was always ushered directly into that section, which I shared with veiled women with their faces temporarily uncovered, and playful children. It didn’t feel like segregation, it felt like respect. It felt like recognition of the fact that being a woman in India can be challenging, so reprieve will be given when it can.
The same applies to public transport in many places. In Delhi, entire carriages of the Delhi Metro are reserved for women, and the Kolkata Metro has designated seats for us. On already-crowded, long-distance buses, room has been made for me — alongside local women — at the front of the bus. Some train and bus stations — again, especially in cities with large Muslim populations, such as Lucknow — have separate lines for women. The intention is not to treat women as invalids, but to recognise that for women, trying to cram into a crowded carriage full of men can be daunting.
5. India has a vibrant — and successful — feminist movement.
One of the most frustrating, ignorant comments that frequently arises online when discussion turns to the treatment of women in India is “why don’t they have feminism?” Newsflash: they do. It has been active and vibrant since at least the 1970s (depending on where you want to draw the lines around the ‘waves’), and on some issues, has been very successful. For example, the giving of dowry was made illegal after feminist campaigns, and women artisans were successful in creating powerful trade unions that fight for the rights of home-based workers. The focus of Indian forms of feminism has largely been on issues that affect women there, rather than the wholesale import of feminism from Western countries. If you’re looking for Liberal Feminism, you’re unlikely to find it, but if you learn to recognise Third World Feminism, Postcolonial Feminism and so on, you will see that it’s there in abundance. Like everywhere else in the world, though, there’s only so much that feminists can do without the widespread support of those in charge, which still happens to largely be men.
6. You wouldn’t want to miss out on all the beauty.
India is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful country in the world. People often ask me what surprised me most the first time I visited, expecting me to say the poverty or the crowds. Actually, I was most surprised by the sheer beauty. I had expected India to be interesting, but not for it to be so attractive. I fell in love on my first day, visiting the Mughal-era Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, with its geometric landscaped gardens and intricate stone carving.
India is as diverse as Europe or North America, so whatever you like, you’ll find it there. For partying at the beach, head to palm-fringed Goa; for relaxed backwater cruising, try laid-back Kerala; for jaw-dropping historical monuments, try Delhi; for erudite literary culture, try Kolkata; for big-city glamour, try Bombay; for wildlife-spotting, try the lion and wild-ass sanctuaries of Gujarat; for glitzy desert palaces, try Rajasthan; for fresh air and mountain views, try Himachal Pradesh.
And these are just a handful of the highlights that make India, as challenging as it can be, a very rewarding travel destination. We shouldn’t miss out on these experiences just because we are women.