A Note for Women Traveling to Northern India

It’s been more than a month now since our Holi experience in Jaipur, and I think I’ve simmered down enough to write a nuanced and informative piece about my experiences as a woman traveling in India. Unfortunately, world travel carries with it some inherent risks that have to be weighed when deciding which countries to visit. Women in particular have to carefully consider whether they are putting themselves at risk in countries where they may not have the same status as men, or where locals make false assumptions about female travelers.

I’ll preface this article by stating clearly that I believe the vast majority of Indian men are decent people, and that I had no problems in southern India. There must be half a billion good, respectful men in this country, and I’ve met some of them. I’ve also had the displeasure of encountering dozens who have inappropriately touched my lady parts in broad daylight on the streets of Jaipur and Delhi. I did wear a tank top for Holi (gasp!), but I won’t entertain the idea that my attire somehow prompted these attacks, nor that I’m to blame for what happened.

The “gropings”, as they’ve come to be called, took place during the day in public, with my 6’4” husband and friends nearby. The violations of personal space were physically harmless, but they were infuriating. I can’t understand how these men could possibly derive any sexual pleasure from this behavior – they touch you quickly and then run away, so they can’t be feeling much. I’ve decided it must be about power – they feel good knowing they’ve made women uncomfortable. And if they’re so desperate for power they must feel powerless themselves. It’s easy to look back at the last two months in India and say that these incidents were rare overall (they happened on three or four days out of two months). It’s easy to shrug them off and say it’s not a big deal. But it is a big deal because they reflect a much deeper problem, and a potential safety issue for women traveling there.

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Walking the streets of major cities, it’s not difficult to spot the inconsistencies between genders. Almost all servers at restaurants are male, and they address the men at the table instead of the women. The shops, roads, cafés and theaters seem only to be frequented by Indian men and older Indian women. It is less common to see young women out and about in the cities unless their husbands or fathers escort them. When it comes to Holi, women choose not to publicly participate at all, instead preferring the safety of celebrating in their own homes. There are seats reserved for women on many public buses, and the metro in Delhi has special cars designated for them. So the question must be asked: From what (or whom) are they being protected?

To what extent is this partition of the sexes actually discrimination veiled as protection? Perhaps this separation, rather than empowering women or keeping them safe, only serves to exacerbate the issues that cause them to need protection in the first place. By separating them from men they lose status as equals. Men assume the dominate, patriarchal role of guardians and women are automatically subsumed to the opposite role – weak, helpless victims.

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I can refuse to sit in the women’s carriages on trains and the front seats on buses, and up until my experiences in Jaipur and Delhi, this simple act of disengaged tolerance was enough for me. But being repeatedly sexually assaulted in broad daylight has made me feel like so many men seemingly want me to feel: powerless, victimized. I can’t do anything to change the sexism in India, but I do have a voice and I can share my experiences with other travelers. This empowers me, and it empowers other women traveling there because they may be able to make more informed decisions.

Would my experiences prevent me from going there again? Absolutely not. As a female world traveler, do I think you should go? Definitely. We can’t let a bunch of grabassers prevent us from experiencing a place as vivid and awe-inspiring as India. But it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for this sort of thing, since it’s common there – and to consider partnering with other travelers if possible.