The thought of ‘doing India’ was always an alluring one to me. But as a solo female traveller, was it a place I could be safe in? Absolutely! Once I got my head around a few essential tips.
Once you accept that India is going to come with unique challenges for all travellers, and especially for women travelling solo, you can start to prepare your trip for success. Many women panic at the thought of travelling in India, only to find, upon arrival, that much of the fuss was for nothing. India is well trodden by female voyagers, and it is very common to see women travelling alone in not only the main cities, but in the lesser known regions too.
While India can be dangerous for women, you’re more likely to find yourself feeling uncomfortable than afraid. Keep these 6 tips in mind and you’ll avoid the main challenges.
1. THE DRESS CODE
Many Indian men see the clothes Western women wear as proof of their sexually provocative nature. Argh. To get around this, adapt your wardrobe to feature long pants and long sleeved tops in loose, light fabrics. You can even buy a Punjabi suit (Indian style pants and a matching top), or have one made, when you get there. No, you won’t be mistaken for an Indian woman, but you’ll gain respect from both men and women. You’ll be less of a target for harassment, be seen as culturally sensitive, and will have a fun new outfit to take home with you. Many women also notice that when they’ve adopted Indian clothing, they’ve been less hassled for money and been offered fairer prices. The aim is to come across as an experienced expat. Master that and you’ll take yourself out of the tourist-zone. Find more dress code tips here.
2. TAKE THE TOP BUNK
If you’re booking a train (and can’t afford first class), the women’s berth is the best option. If this isn’t possible, at least ask for the top bunk. Indian trains are hot and crowded, giving uncouth men the opportunity to stare incessantly at you, verbally abuse you, or even touch you. This is made worse if you have a lower bunk, as you will then have zero privacy and be forced to share your space. The top bunk is the only “private” space you could have. You can throw your bag up there (make sure you lock it) and jump up there if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It may be cramped, but you can even stay there for the entire trip.
3. IGNORE HAWKERS
Unless you’re with a male companion, you will likely be heckled and verbally harassed in public. Try to not take anything to heart, as unfair as the negative attention is – otherwise you’ll feel disappointed and upset for most of your trip. Becoming emotional will also distract you and make you more vulnerable to scams. Ignore them – look straight ahead and keep walking. Laugh about it later, smiling or laughing in response at the time will only encourage the hecklers. Wearing sunglasses is a great way to deflect harassment. It will give you a sense of privacy and security, and can be very disarming for anyone looking to gauge your emotions in order to manipulate you.
4. AVOID DRINKING AND SMOKING PUBLICLY
With the exception of major cities, it is simply seen as morally degrading for a woman to smoke and drink, a rather antiquated view. For the most part you will be met with stares, frowns, and looks of disapproval. But it will also make you vulnerable to advances and attacks from men. This is especially true in rural areas and in certain Northern cities such as Varanasi. If you do decide to drink in a bar or club, make sure you’re with friends or a male companion. This attitude is far more relaxed on the beaches of Goa, but then again Southern India is generally more forgiving towards women anyway.
5.BE RESERVED BUT NOT CLOSED OFF
Chatting casually with an Indian man is typically seen as flirtation and as an invitation for sex. Sigh. Unfortunately, many women find it is just not possible to befriend an Indian man, as more often than not it leads to discomfort or danger. However, you don’t want to be completely closed off from interactions with locals, so use your judgment to decide what is appropriate. A good way to to judge is to check what other women are doing, especially fellow tourists or more established expats.
6.BE CONFIDENT BUT CAUTIOUS
Confidence goes a long way in India. Hold your head up high, look straight ahead, and know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing. With time, you’ll find that you feel more and more comfortable. Just don’t get so confident that you forget where you are – India can be completely unpredictable.