Unfortunately, recent rape cases in India and the publicity that they've attracted has left many foreigners wondering if India is a safe place to visit, especially for solo women.
This recent article, in which a woman from the UK recalls being sexually harassed frequently during the time she spent traveling in India, has attracted quite a bit of attention and discussion.
"When we visited, around three years ago, we were prepared for the poverty; we'd read the guidebooks back to front to learn the scams and the tricks that thieves employ to steal cameras and iPods. We weren't warned that travelling without a man in India is an invitation for unwanted advances."
So, what's the situation really like?
The dialogue I've had with other foreign women revealed very diverse experiences in India. Some have reported being groped and harassed often. For others, like myself, it's only happened infrequently.
In the seven years that I've lived in India, I can only remember being groped once, on a local bus in Kolkata. Apart from that, I've been followed a few times (although the men have quickly scurried away when confronted), and of course been on the receiving end of lewd remarks and staring -- but on the whole, I consider myself to be relatively unscathed. Sometimes, I even travel alone in the gent's compartment of the Mumbai local train, and men have graciously offered me a seat rather than groped me!
It leads me to wonder why some foreign women seem to get groped and harassed more than others in India, and it's difficult to come up with an adequate explanation. The fact that I dress quite conservatively, am taller than many Indian men, and look and act like I can take care of myself have been suggested as factors in my favor.
Indeed, shock and uncertainty about how to react to sexual harassment in India does appear to be an issue. As the author of the above mentioned article stated:
"At the start, we simply did not know how to react. If truth be told, whenever we were placed in uncomfortable positions, we simply felt deeply embarrassed. We would push the offending limbs away with a nervous laugh and make as quick an escape as possible. After a month, however, we learned this is not always an adequate solution."
Personally, I believe that foreign women do need to be very assertive and street smart when traveling in India, and this can go a long way to mitigating the chance of problems happening. I don't believe that India poses a big danger to foreign women (foreign women are actually probably safer than Indian women, as Indians fear repercussions from foreigners and foreign authorities). However, caution really needs to be excised, and I'd recommend solo travel only for women who have some India experience and knowledge. Otherwise, you may find yourself overwhelmed and in situations that you're unsure of how to handle.
Is India uncomfortable for women travelers? Definitely yes! But unsafe, not if you're sensible. The places in India that you visit to will also have a significant impact on your experience. When traveling solo through Tamil Nadu, in south India, I noticed a huge positive difference compared to north India.