Unfortunately, India receives a lot of negative publicity about rape, harassment, and the adverse treatment of women. In June 2018, a global survey of about 550 experts on women's issues conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation named India as the world's most dangerous country for women. This was mainly due to the high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labor. (India was placed fourth in the same survey conducted in 2011).
The survey was refuted as being subjective and based on perception. Nevertheless, it understandably leaves many foreigners wondering if India is a safe place for females to visit. Some are so fearful that they hesitate or even refuse to travel to India.
So, what's the situation really like?
Understanding the Problem and its Cause
There's no denying that India is a male-dominated society where patriarchy is entrenched. The different treatment of males and females starts from a young age, when children are growing up. It's not only behavior, but extends to language and the way people think. Girls are often viewed as being a liability or burden to be married off. They're told to be meek and submissive, and dress conservatively. Boys, on the other hand, are generally allowed to behave however they want. Any kind of violence or disrespect towards women is passed off as "boys being boys", and not questioned or disciplined.
Boys learn from how their parents interact too, including their mother being subservient to their father. This gives them a distorted sense of masculinity. Interaction between males and females outside of marriage is also limited in India, leading to sexual repression. All in all, this creates a situation where the rights of women aren't considered to be a big deal.
A woman who interviewed 100 convicted rapists in India found that the rapists are normal men who don't understand what consent is. Many don't even realize that what they've done is rape.
India is progressing though, especially in larger cities. The patriarchal mindset is being challenged by a growing number of women who are working outside the home and becoming financially independent. These women are making their own choices, rather than letting men dictate them. Yet, this also contributes to men acting aggressively, if they feel threatened and try to regain their power.
The Issue for Foreign Women in India
India's patriarchal society has implications for how solo female travelers are perceived and treated in India by men. Traditionally, Indian women don't travel by themselves without being accompanied by a man. Just take a look at the streets in India. The absence of women is glaringly obvious. Public spaces are filled with men, while women are relegated to the home and kitchen. In many places in India, women won't even go outside after dark.
Hollywood movies and other western TV programs, which show white women uninhibitedly having sex, have also led many Indian men to erroneously believe that such women are "loose" and "easy".
Combine these two factors together, and when this type of Indian man sees a foreign woman traveling alone in India, it's like an open invitation for unwanted advances. This is amplified if the woman is wearing tight or revealing clothing that's considered to be indecent in India.
Nowadays, one of the most widespread forms of unwanted advances is harassment for selfies. It may seem like a harmless gesture. However, what the guys do with the selfies is another matter. Many will post them on social media, claiming to have befriended and been intimate with the women.
Uncomfortable but not Unsafe
As a foreign woman, feeling uncomfortable in India is sadly inevitable. You will be stared at by men, and most likely groped and sexually harassed (termed "eve-teasing") on occasion. It usually ends there though.
The likelihood of a female tourist being raped in India is in reality no higher than elsewhere in the world. And, in fact, India is safer for foreign women than Indian women. Why?
India is an extremely diverse country. Unlike what may be portrayed in the media, violence against women isn't happening everywhere. It's much more prevalent in some areas than others. Most incidents occur among lower castes and in domestic situations, predominantly in "backwards" rural regions or poverty-stricken parts of town that foreigners don't visit.
Nevertheless, speak to foreign women who have traveled around India, and they're likely to report a diverse range of experiences. For some, sexual harassment was frequent. For others, it was much less. However, it's pretty much unavoidable. And, you need to be prepared as to how you'll handle it.
How Should You React?
Unfortunately, many foreign women simply don't know how to react. When finding themselves in uncomfortable situations, they feel very embarrassed and don't want to cause a scene. This is part of the reason why those Indian men feel emboldened to behave in inappropriate ways in the first place though -- no one confronts them about it!
Ignoring the situation or trying to escape from it isn't always adequate. Instead, it's much more effective to be assertive. Men who aren't used to women standing up for themselves are usually easily shocked and will quickly retreat. Plus, women who have a confident demeanor and look like they can take care of themselves are less likely to be targets in the first place. Indians also fear repercussions from foreigners and foreign authorities.
It's not all Bad
An important thing to keep in mind is that not all Indian men share the same mentality. There are many decent men who do respect women and will not hesitate to offer help if needed. You may be surprised to encounter scenarios where you're treated better than you expect. Most Indians want foreigners to enjoy and like their country, and will go out of their way to provide assistance. Some of your best memories of India will involve locals.
So, Should Foreign Women Travel Solo in India?
In short, only if you can handle it. Admittedly, India is not a country where you'll feel at ease and want to let your guard down, although the rewards are definitely there. Expect to be overwhelmed at times, and not know what to do. Hence, if it's your first overseas trip, India isn't really an ideal place to begin. If you have some travel experience and are confident though, there's no reason to feel unsafe if you're sensible. Don't go to isolated areas or stay out late at night by yourself. Monitor your body language and how you interact with men in India. Even a subconscious gesture, such as a smile or touch on the arm, could be interpreted as interest. Be street smart and trust your instincts!
Which are the Best and Worst Destinations?
Keep in mind that the destinations you visit in India will also have a major impact on your experience. In general, the south (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh) is noticeably hassle-free compared to the north.
Tamil Nadu is one of the best places for solo female travel in India, and is a recommended starting point. Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city with a reputation for safety. Other places in India that are relatively hassle-free are Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Northeast India, and Ladakh.
In general, harassment is most prevalent at popular tourist destinations in north India, including Delhi, Agra, and parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, is known to be one of the worst places in India for rampant harassment of foreigners, as well as Indians (by touts and guides, in addition to local goons). In 2017, it culminated in the severe assault of two Swiss tourists.
Where Should You Stay?
Choose your accommodations wisely as well. Homestays offer a number of benefits, including local knowledge and hosts who will look after you. Alternatively, India now has plentiful world-class backpacker hostels where you can meet other travelers.