Traveling in India as a woman, whether foreigner or local, can be a daunting task. Given the cultural perceptions and norms, traveling ‘alone’ (read: without a man) can be considered everything from dangerous, disgraceful, odd to courageous. Where, how, and with whom you travel will make a huge difference. To stay both respectful and safe here are my top tips below from living and traveling in India for 10 months.
If you are a male, your experience in India will be very different, and I hate to say it but likely a lot easier. If you are a woman, especially a young woman. Please keep in mind:
Dress modestly & like a local. Shorts and short skirts are a definite no, but T-shirts are good, and tank tops usually OK unless you’re in a village or religious place. In India showing your legs is considered too revealing while arms, stomach, and back aren’t as much of an issue. You will likely see a lot of women in saris with their bellies or backs showing to the world. But there is a difference if you are wearing a sari and a Rajasthani labourer is – she has been wearing that her whole life! Save saris for a special occasion like a wedding or birthday. That being said you will see local girls in shorts in big cities – there’s no rule and it’s your call, but be prepared for staring. The only place where shorts are acceptable is a beach resort or towns like in Goa (but Goa is an ‘exception’ to India).
It’s a good idea to carry a loose scarf, stole or dupatta with you to drape over your shoulders at all times, or cover your head in mosques, and block out the sun and dust. Indian clothes are comfortable and people will like it when you wear kurtas! A kurta or kurti is a loose, long Indian top usually worn with leggings, a loose pajama bottom, or maxi skirt and a matching scarf if you wish. Browse Google, Instagram or Pinterest – there are hundreds of styles, lengths, variations. Pure cotton, khadi, and linen in light colours will keep you cool. Indo-western can be fun too – check out palooza pants, maxi skirts, and long dresses from Indian companies. Fab India is a good start for ideas though their prices are inflated for what they sell.
A simple block-print kurta with loose black pants. Some funky red linen pants I surprisingly found in a mall!
Always be concerned for your safety. Most people you meet will be concerned with your safety as a girl – want to drive you everywhere, accompany you everywhere, and will caution you against very basic tasks etc. Though this can seem frustrating, remember that is comes from a good place and intention. The first few days or weeks follow locals’ suggestions, only use Uber or Ola and don’t stay out too late, know your surroundings and where you are headed, get a local SIM with a working phone number and GPS.
Remember: Your safety is conditional on where you are. In my area (Ahmedabad) I can walk 15 minutes home at 11 or 12 p.m. on a well-lit street with no issues, or catch a rickshaw at midnight. This is not the same in rural India, or cities like Delhi, areas like U.P., Rajasthan and Bihar! I can’t cover every area, so read about where you are going or send me a message or comment.
Staring will be a part of your everyday life, but it’s not considered rude in India so try to ignore it. For some reason public parks are unfortunately especially bad for this, as well as leering and cat-calling, so avoid going alone. Many strangers will come up to you and strike a conversation because they are genuinely interested in who you are, or to practice their English and sometimes ask you visa questions! Usually a selfie will be requested. Don’t be afraid to draw boundaries. I used to speak to everyone out of politeness – now I only do on planes or trains, otherwise I say no thank you. Recognize when this is harmless – eg. discussing with the guy next to you on a bus, and when it could go wrong – a man approaches you on the street for no reason.
Sexual harassment is an unfortunate and true fact of everyday life for thousands of women. As a foreigner you carry a lot of privilege in that a security guard, hotel, restaurant etc. will let you slip inside, or be concerned for your safety and arrange a ride etc., etc.. The police will (very likely) help you, or at least listen to you. Remember this is not the reality many local women face, especially in informal communities and rural areas in India. Don’t take this privilege for granted – use your common sense. Unfortunately in India as in many many places around the world, the prevailing belief is ‘don’t do anything to get yourself raped’/’don’t ask for’/’what were you thinking’. Watch your dress, your alcohol consumption and level or awareness, and make sure you always know how you are getting home.
While strangers jumping out of alleyways to assault you is uncommon, some sexual harassment happens frequently: ‘accidental’ groping (especially on public transit), and verbal harassment being the most common. You will likely be taken advantage of in smaller situations – for example being over charged for a taxi or rickshaw ride because you are foreign or a girl and it is expected you don’t know what is going on. Do everything with confidence and do not be afraid to negotiate a price – it’s not considered disrespectful at all.
Know that judgement happens. This will play a huge role in various aspects of your life, work or travels in India as a woman. For example, when finding somewhere to live. People will question why you are living alone (or with other girls) and not with a family. They may also restrict you from bringing any guests over, or impose a curfew for ‘safety’. Sometimes it is our of curiosity: why are you alone?! Just understand it is not common, and answer politely. People will also judge where you go at what times, what you eat, what you wear, and even nit-picky details like if you use tampons…Privacy is not much of a thing.
Do be aware of cultural norms. Especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships or interactions between a loved one, or flirting etc. A university campus or a bar in Bandra in Mumbai you may see a lot of couples acting like they would in New York – but on the streets public affection is not OK. Be respectful. Also be aware that non-hetero relationships are widely criticized and cause massive political controversy (as do any gender issues really). Just keep what is private, private.
Take care of your personal hygiene. Pads are used in India. Tampons and menstrual cups have a taboo around them, or are simply not easily available. Due to a lack of toilet paper and dustbins in washrooms, pads can be tricky to dispose. I would recommend a menstrual cup to reduce waste, or something like period-proof underwear, and because someone will be picking through or sorting your garbage by hand (something to keep in mind re: tampons). In the summer, humidity can increase the risk of UTIs, yeast infections, and rashes. Also note that if you are taking any anti-biotic anti-malarial (Docxy or Malarone) it will increase your risk of yeast infections and UTIs. Carry some medication with you as the names, dosages, and brands you are used to will likely not be available – and having a hand gesture conversation with a chemist about a UTI may be a little awkward!
Toilets: have you used an ‘Indian’ or squat toilet? You’re in for a surprise! Growing up in the woods of B.C. meant that popping a squat was no issue to me. To be honest, squatting to use the loo is usually cleaner – nothing touches anything, and squat toilets and frequently doused with water and cleaners/soaps in public places. If there’s a western toilet people will usually stand on the seat anyways, so there’s no use sitting down (unless you’re in a fancy hotel, museum, airport). The tricky thing is getting used to water instead of T.P. If there’s a hose, this is easy, it’s just like a small garden hose- use this to rinse whatever you gotta rinse, and shake it dry. This is a relief for when you’re on your period – so clean, so fresh! If there’s a bucket with a smaller bucket inside, us the small bucket to scoop water and bring it to your left hand, and get that hand up in there. It may seem weird but we wash everything else in the world with water except our butts…think about that! If you’re uncomfortable with that, carry your own paper but be aware flushing it or tossing it isn’t always an option.
Keep in mind these useful tips: there are some perks! In security checks there is always a female only queue which is often shorter. If you are ever approached by a police officer or are in a sticky situation, they cannot do anything to you if it is dark (arrest your, enter your home etc.) – it is your right to request a female officer to be present. People (friends, colleagues) will always offer to drive you home because they want you to be safe. In most public transit like Delhi Metro and the Mumbai local there are women’s only cars – you can sit and stand here for no extra fee, and it is usually much less crowded!