The first reaction I got when I told people I was backpacking solo through India was one of shock and concern. Let’s just put it out there- India gets a bad rap for solo women.
India is magical, chaotic, and thoroughly appealing on a lot of levels for the solo traveler. It has cheap accommodation and food, is fairly easy to get around, and is full of fascinating sights. However, the one question I get most is “Is is it safe for women?”
Well, the US State Department says no. Their website states as follows:
“Travelers should be aware that there have been reported cases of sexual assault, including rape, of U.S. citizens traveling throughout India. U.S. citizens, particularly women, are cautioned not to travel alone in India.”
The list tells women that they need to watch how they dress, and make it seem like it is almost inevitable that you will be ‘eve-teased’ or groped. I think that the US State Department’s advice needs to be acknowledged and respected but experienced travelers need to take their own judgement into consideration as well. Millions of foreigners visit India each year, and although it is always smart to be cautious, it doesn’t mean that you should feel scared to travel solo as a woman in India. Backpacking as a woman in India is totally doable, but it does take a little bit of extra preparation and research.
With that thought in mind, here are my top tips for women traveling solo in India.
10 Tips for Solo Women in India
Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. Far too many women don’t say something when they are feeling uncomfortable. If something is giving me a bad feeling, I try to exit the situation as quickly as possible. If this isn’t an option I do not hesitate to get very loud and cause a scene if necessary. Chances are that locals will see what is happening and come to your aid.
Don’t take photos with single men. As a woman traveling alone in India, you will be asked to take photos with hundreds of people. As a rule, I don’t take photos with single men. I’ve been told from numerous people that although it can seem harmless, they often will post it online with something raunchy in the description. Although I probably will never see any of these guys’ social media accounts, it still leaves me with an icky feeling. If a guy asks me, I will just tell him to bring his friends over and we can take a group picture. Watch out for him trying to side-angle the camera so he gets just you two in the shot.
Disable your tinder. Okay, if you don’t have a tinder (but don’t lie, everyone I know has a tinder :)), move to tip #4. I wasn’t using my tinder in Asia, but had my Instagram linked to my account. About three days after I landed in Mumbai, I checked my ‘other’ Instagram box and had about 70+ messages from Indian dudes sending anything from heartfelt declarations of love to dick pics. Just save your eyes the grief and disable your tinder while you are in India.
Get used to men staring. Yes, it’s annoying. Yes, it feels invasive. But there really isn’t much you can do about it. I tend to take stares in general as curiosity rather than creepiness. Just take the stares with a grain of salt.
Dress appropriately. This means no shorts, no tight tank-tops, and no yoga pants unless you have a t-shirt on that covers your butt. That’s just far too much curve. I think the one exception to this rule would be in Goa or in the touristy areas of Mumbai. If you are going to dress this way, be prepared for the attention that it brings. By all means, DON’T DRESS THIS WAY ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT. An actual sheet or hajib couldn’t cover me enough on public buses in India.
Come up with a good lie. Don’t ever say you are single. Instead, you have a boyfriend who will be meeting you tomorrow. He’s also extremely large from his steroid use, has a bit of a temper, and a jealous streak.
Don’t let your driver bring a friend. I’ve been told this by numerous people, and have actually had several drivers try to do this, including one time in Rishikesh where I practically had a panic attack. I’m not sure exactly why this rule exists- maybe because two people can overpower someone easier than one? Anyway- just give them a firm no when a random dude tries to pop in the passenger seat. If they refuse, get out and find another driver. This is not a country to be meek in. Be assertive even if you feel like you are overreacting or they are going to think you are a bitch. Better safe then sorry.
Take government regulated taxis whenever possible. This is especially important after dark. In case something happens to you, these taxis can be tracked and the driver held responsible. If I had to take transport after dark, I usually took a rickshaw, as if I was feeling weird, I could just hop out.
Do your research. Look into the places that are tourist friendly and get good reviews from other women. If it is your first time backpacking alone, India should probably not be your first option. Consider starting somewhere a little bit easier to manage, such as Southeast Asia or Europe.
Avoid arriving somewhere new at night. Arriving somewhere new in the middle of the night is never a good choice, and I do this in other countries as well. Even if you’ll save a bit of money, take the day bus and save yourself the grief. It can be pretty terrifying to be dropped off when you can’t see your hostel and you are in unfamiliar territory. This goes for going out alone at night (especially in places where people are drinking.) I’ve had a couple of experiences in India at night where I have been very grateful to have some friends by my side.
The Bottom Line
After all these tips being said, don’t go into India with a guarded heart. Yes, there are terrible news stories and atrocious things that happen to women in India. However, that doesn’t make up the country as a whole or the majority of people who live there. Attitudes toward women in general are very different from the West, and in some areas women do not receive the same amount of respect or enjoy the same freedoms.
But, do I think fear is warranted? No. Fear of a country automatically assumes a negative attitude, which will breed negative experiences. Sometimes its better to just switch off the news and explore the world from a new perspective.
This post is meant to be thoroughly unbiased and is just a recollection of my experiences as well as things I have heard in order to help other solo female travelers.