January 20, 2012

Quora: Is it safe for a single woman to travel alone in India?

Here I start a series of my best answers on Quora, starting with this one. It still has the highest numbers of upvotes!

For those of you who don’t know, Quora is an amazing community full of smart people asking and answering interesting questions. I spend a lot of time on it.

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My answer:

Absolutely. Many women do. I have travelled alone to India over 20 times. To all parts.

I used to always stay in $2 rooms alone, and also travelled sleeper class in long train journeys alone.

You need to have your wits about you, more so that you are a lone woman, but this is true of all places if you have travelled alone before.

I’m not saying nothing untoward will ever happen, just that the most I have seen has been verbal harassment which was quite easy to disarm. And that this did not happen significantly more than other places I have travelled to alone, and I will include Yemen, Bangladesh, some parts of western Europe in that list. You will have some trouble travelling alone anywhere — I don’t think India is a special case in any sense.

Someone told me, very early on when I first started exploring India alone: when in doubt, talk to a woman. I thought he was nuts but then I tried it whenever I felt unsafe anywhere (this has happened just a handful of times). People in India are super friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask. It should not be too hard to find English-speaking local women who can help, as they deal with much worse on their own. I realized this person was absolutely right: Indian women got me out of situations with calm ferocity, each and every time. They would tell the guy/s to f*** off, and make sure they deliver you to safety. This has happened across India and I urge you to consider this if shit ever hits the fan (it shouldn’t).

Some things to note, from anecdotal experiences (all of this has happened to me):

– a generalization: you will probably find South India very safe compared to North India. If interested, ask some locals on their opinions on why that is. My experience is just that in south India people are more reserved and less taken by the idea of anything foreign.

– many people in India are unable to comprehend why you should want to do that. Many of my friends there who come from privileged backgrounds, are not even given the opportunity to travel alone the same way I did. Most of their parents thought I was mad, and thought their country extremely unsafe. I think as a foreigner, one is held to a different set of standards and you can see India in a completely different way. Don’t be put off or scared by stories of other people’s opinions. Discover India for yourself and never be afraid of her. There’s a lot to learn.

– you will be asked endless questions about your personal life. What is your good name, what is your country, how old are you, are you married, how many children do you have, do you like India, what is your native place, how much money you make and can you help them get a job in your native place. Be friendly, be open to making stuff up (“the correct/expected answers”) if you like. It doesn’t really matter. But do not take this personally: this stuff is expected, considered good form, and not intrusive at all. They will also want you to send their regards to your parents, who they haven’t and will never meet, just keep it all in good faith. Friendliness takes you far in India.

– an unpleasant quirk of travelling as a lone female: this is a strange, not very nice thing but you will find out that in some places, some local men will assume because you are a foreigner = you are willing and able to have sex with them because all foreign women are not Indian and therefore impure and loose by definition. You won’t hear this said, but it is thought by many. I have found this attitude more pervasive in the north than anywhere else. I have seen and heard and experienced this behavior personally from lowly educated men and highly educated men alike. Remember, most local men are GREAT. It’s a couple of bad eggs that spoil it, as always. Just remember this terrible idea comes from watching tv and never having interacted properly with foreigners and believing in the myth that all white (and foreign women) are interested in alcohol and sex (and necessarily with them). Many people also won’t be able to understand why your husband or boyfriend is okay with you travelling alone.

– in general, the “holier” the place, the more shit you will get as a single lone female. The negative stuff I’ve experienced have come exclusively from the touristy and/or holy cities/towns. No problems at all outside these parts. There’s a crap ton of hypocrisy in the so-called holy places. All the sexual harassment I have ever faced have come from weird men in “holy” places. Luckily none of it was ever dangerous, just annoying.

So, be on your guard but make sure you don’t let any kind of fear cripple your trip either.

I mean, I have more than survived India alone.. And I also have a lot of female friends who have travelled India alone many times over the way I do. Their experiences more or less corroborate with mine.

The assumption is that you will dress appropriately and be sensitive to local customs. You will be fine. More than fine. Make plans before hand to meet some prominent local people in major cities, especially if they are in a similar field of work or working in an area you are interested in finding out about. I’ve learned a lot from talking to journalists, artists, tech types. They can teach you a bit about their city, and they will also watch out for you as you are a guest of Mother India’s after all!

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