7 mins

How to travel safely in India as a woman

Sally Howard, author of a new book on sexuality in India, travelled extensively around the country. She discusses changing social mores and ways for single travellers to stay safe

Eve Teasing poster (Sally Howard)

You've been visiting India as a traveller and as a journalist for 15 years. What changes have you noticed in the country's attitude to sex and to women?

That both are fast evolving. Today, as ever, there's no one experience for the Indian woman. In 2012 a survey by Thomson Reuters Foundation labelled India the world's worst place to be a woman, taking into consideration factors such as female infanticide, slavery, dowry murder and domestic violence. But for middle class Indian women the picture can be less bleak. India has a female prime minister and had a female president. And, when it comes to work/family balance, middle class Indian women can be better off than their western counterparts, with an extended network of 'help' (in the form of maids, extended family etc) and therefore less of a requirement to sacrifice a family life to get ahead in demanding sectors such as banking and finance. 

When it comes to sex, as I argue in my book, there's a revolution underway. Young Indians are flouting social convention to get together and date, and they're casting an optic on the received wisdom of the arranged marriage. It's an electric pace of social change. 

You spent a lot of time in India with Indian women. Are they harassed as much as Western women? Or just in different ways?

Well, this is an interesting, and highly politicised, point. Indian women are sexually harassed just as much as foreign travellers. Indian religious and political conservatives assert that young Indian women are attacked because they wear Western clothing, such as jeans, echoing the tired argument in the West about women rape victims 'asking for it' in short skirts. But an Indian community public art project, the Blank Noise Project, put the lie to this when they staged an exhibition of garments Indian women were wearing when they were sexually molested: most, of course, turned out to be traditional Indian saris and the shalwar kameez

Indian men often use Hollywood movies and provocative music videos as an excuse for their attitude towards Western women. And now, thanks to the internet, porn. But these things are available worldwide and don't have the same effect. Why do you think Indian men behave the way they do?

Firstly we're not talking about all young Indian men here by any means. Many of India's rising feminist and anti eve-teasing (molestation) groups have 50% male membership, a situation we can only dream of in the West. 

But when it comes to the minority of abusive men there are many factors at play. There's the skewed sex ratio of 893 Indian females for every 1,000 males: the result of decades of female infanticide. These statistics promote a rootless group of testosterone-charged and uneducated young men who have no hope of finding a girlfriend or wife: a tinderbox to spark sexual violence, as we've seen. And, when it comes to the behaviour of such men towards Western women, porn is a certainly factor: in 2011, seven Indian cities were among the world’s top ten in terms of the frequency of searches for porn – seven out of ten cities worldwide. 

Not excusing the behaviour of these young men, but if the only Western women they've been exposed to are porn stars and the gyrating half-naked form of pop stars such as Britney Spears they might make the assumption, through ignorance, that all Western women are, ergo, sexually available to them. This is something that could be addressed via education. But we Western women, as ambassadors for our breed, also have a duty to challenge these assumptions by dressing with cultural appropriateness when we travel to India: no strappy tops and short skirts or acres of flesh on display on public beaches. For all of its pace of social change, India is still an outwardly conservative society; jeans may be innocuous, but Western women wearing micro-bikinis reinforce the stereotypes we all suffer by.

There has been a rash of horrific stories coming out of India about attacks on women. Do you think there is an increase or has it always been happening but gone unreported?

Rates of violence and gang rape, for reasons detailed above, have been on the rise in India for two decades. These have been reported in the Indian press. Reports of attacks on tourists have occasionally made it into the international press and guide book warning panels: there was a grisly rape and murder of an Australian tourist by a Delhi taxi driver in 2004, for example. But what we’re seeing with the global media attention around the December 2012 Delhi gang rape is an inflection point. Now, with the rise of protest groups and the world media's gaze, young Indians are taking a stand and saying enough is enough.

Yes, you take part in a protest, an anti-groping flash mob on the Delhi Metro. Are such movements on the rise?

There's a real sense of outrage among young Indians that's giving rise to grass roots activism. Some of these groups are very inventive in their tactics. Mind the Gap stage flash mobs on the Delhi Metro, wearing t-shirts reading: ‘Main Cheez Nahin Hun Mast Mast’ or ‘I am not an Item’: a pun on the ‘item’, or sexy cameo dancing girls in Bollywood. One non-violent protest group took on the leader of the Mangalore chapter of an orthodox Hindu group who'd threatened to ‘take violent action’ against unmarried couples caught together on Valentine's Day by asking their supporters to send, on the same Valentine’s Day, pairs of pink chaddis (underpants) in the post to the orthodox headquarters: 250,000 pairs were dispatched.

What part can the government play? Some of the institutions in India have bizarre attitudes and ideas. One blamed eating chow-mien.

Yes, there have been some surreal responses from ignorant political and religious leaders, from the suggestion of child marriage as a prophylactic against rape to the idea that fast-food or meat-eating are to blame for rape incidents. But how different are these notions to the 'short-skirted girls are asking for it' arguments in the West? And the Indian Government, creakingly, is moving in the right direction. In March 2013, the Indian Government passed a Rape Law that makes stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment a crime (though falls short, as yet, of criminalising marital rape). 

What is the best way to react to harassment? What do Indian women do?

Make an exhibition of your groper. Indian society is behind you in your war against cat-calling and wandering hands, so shout your assailant out. You'll probably find yourself at the head of a baying group of Indian women!

Any other ways female travellers can cut down on being harassed?

As mentioned above, dress appropriately, even on the beaches of Goa and Kerala; a large Indian scarf is excellent for this purpose. Consider wearing a wedding ring, even if you're unmarried, as they're accorded a certain respect. And, it goes without saying, don't make yourself sexually available to young men at Indian tourist resorts. 

Did you notice a difference in different parts of India? Between villages and the cities?  

The big difference is North-South. The South is more liberal, and its streets are safer at night. The North, with its comparatively more conservative values and greater Muslim influence is more problematic for the lone female traveller. The situation is particularly acute in Delhi where the very macho and traditional rural farming cultural of the Punjab bleeds into a modern city where middle class women are comparatively emancipated. This clash of cultures is why Delhi is the frontline of the rape crisis.

There seems to be a real contradiction in India. On one side you have the Kama Sutra, the women of the Hindu epics, the Free Love gurus. Then you have arranged marriages, chaste Bollywood movies, no holding hands in public. Do you think this could be part of the problem? 

No, it's a reason for hope. Many of India's restrictive traditional values took root under British rule. The outlawing of homosexuality, for instance, and the suppression of sexually 'dangerous' groups, such as third genders (eunuchs, or hijras) and dancer castes. Today, as India overthrows many of these British legacies (the 148-year-old colonial law banning homosexual relationships was overturned in 2009) many Indians are looking to their rich history of erotic art and literature, yogini mother goddesses and matriarchs (the world's richest) as a source of succour and hope. 

Did you come away from your travels hopeful that India will muddle its way through its version of a sexual revolution? Or will it just entrench current views and prejudices?

Any profound transition is painful to those caught under its shifting gears. This is a tough time for young people who see around them the rise of the love union, yet are trapped in an arranged marriage; or for the young women who have to play-act conflicting roles to keep Indian society's show on the road: the good Indian girl when they're serving chai to their extended family, the 21st century party girl expected to put out by her Westernised male peers. But the revolution we're seeing in India is one with Indian characteristics. It’s not merely about contraception and Second Wave feminism as in the West. There's a sense of India rediscovering itself.

Finally, just so we can end on a cheery note, what were some of the positive things you took from your travels around India?

As ever, the unfettered friendliness of Indians: quick to share their bhel puri in a train carriage and chat about the best English university for their son to study engineering; the world's finest food; and the excitement of being in a country that's so energetically on the up. Being in Mumbai (Bombay) with all of its bustle and its endless construction projects, barefoot child hawkers selling copies of Steve Jobs' autobiography feels to me as Victorian London might have done.

Kama Sutra DiariesSally Howard's The Kama Sutra Diaries can be ordered on Amazon now. 

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