I took so many good advices with me to India – about right behaviour, being chatted up and the status of women. All this might help to alleviate the culture shock, but it does not prevent it. And although you can for example read everywhere, that wearing Indian clothes is the better choice, I was still astonished which difference it made – in the perception of my counterpart namely.
And of course it is then difficult to retrace, that a free belly under the loose sari goes absolutely without saying, while the free shoulders or a wider decollete often trigger more than lecherous eyes. Many female tourists don’t realise that, others adapt and some enjoy that also.
Especially at the beach this is striking. Wherever a foreign women wears swimming clothes outside from the main tourist ghettos, it will attract a bigger or smaller group of men (well at least two in any case). These guys are looking, passing by and holding each others hands or shoot photos without any embarrassment.
Tip 1 – Wear appropriate clothes (really) – and use a scarf
It sounds so simple and old fashioned, but it is true. You are simply perceived in another way and you meet people on “eye level”. I felt even better, when I bought my first Indian blouse (kurta) and combined this with soft trousers. In these clothes I always felt well and “dressed”. A light scarf is a good friend for all kind of situations – protects against the sun, looks and sometimes from air condition – I always had one in my day pack.
It is not foreseen to be alone
There is something additional for women traveling alone. I’ve often been asked, during my bus and train rides, where my companion is. Many Indian men ( and I suppose women too, but they usually do not start a chat) cannot imagine a woman traveling alone – without male protection. This can sometimes evoke a very helpful protective instinct.
Tip 2 – Ask for help actively
I often asked for the right bus or the right address, which had as consequence that the addressed person took me under his wings until I sat in the right bus or until I was on the right place. With time you get a feeling to ask the right persons, speaking a bit English and willing to help without hidden agenda.
Completely different gender relations
Women in India have a complete different status than in western countries. The female image is traditional and the genders are separated in a stricter way. To get to know each other better, or to touch each other before the marriage, is not foreseen, while at the same time the gender gap is increasing. That means because of targeted abortion and negligence, there are less women. This hinders the battle against children marriage (which is still widespread in the economic weaker North). And in many states there are almost no women on the street. Detailed information about the situation of women in India is available on Wikipedia.
All this can explain, why women travelling alone are often looked at, as if they came from another planet Additionally family has in India a much higher significance and importance than in European countries. Nobody is left alone – there is always someone from the family present, for most people the only available safety net. To leave someone alone, is not foreseen. I met for example in the train a young man, whose parents moved to his city after he managed to find a job far away from home in the south.
Tip 3: Sometimes it is helpful to have a story ready.
Because of all this reasons it can be helpful to have a “story” ready. I told for example, that I am a widow. This had a huge impact on my conversational partners, and I was left in peace then in a different way and with respect.
Many tell about husbands or parents, which stood in the hotel just on that day. The clou is for sure to relate to an Indian husband, whereupon I would suggest to know a bit the country, its people and to speak one language, if you do that – it could be embarrassing otherwise. But I did not always talk about myself being a widow. This has to be appraised from case to case, because for many people the western lifestyle is not a closed book. Sticking to the truth can be the start of interesting conversations.
Differences in cities and tourist regions
In big cities you find a different picture. Here I met many young women, well educated and fluent in English, with western clothes, who even might drink a beer in the evening. These women transport a picture of a changing country, and I am very grateful for these contacts and experiences.
It makes also a difference how far the travelled regions are in their touristic development. The more touristic a region is, the more the relation between solo traveling women and male residents is changing. The interaction is more open and informal. Nobody is going to be surprised that this leads to one or the other affair – but this is another story.
Tip 4: Search the women
In some states like in Kerala it is easy. Here the women are more self-confident, can be seen more often on the streets and many of them speak English. This makes an exchange quite accessible (Have a look at my article about Kerala). I made also good experiences with cooking classes. They enable fascinating and authentic insights in female living environments and a special intimacy arises via the common work and eating. I also had a unique encounter in Jaisalmer (Rajasthan), where I met an inspiring women. She byes the crafts from the surrounding villages and sells them in her small shop in a narrow street. The chat I had in this shop, sitting on a beautiful carpet, has reconciled me in a way, as I started to get really angry about the obvious discrimination of women in Rajasthan.
I met in India way more women traveling alone than in South-East- Asia. The question why this is so, is interesting, but would go beyond the scope here. It is remarkable that many travelers are in some search of themselves, of their path of life and understand their trip as spiritual search. And in comparison to South East Asia India is a more direct and intuitive experience. Here people stare at you and often you will be in the middle of attention – so you may experience yourself in a different way. The right blend between open acceptance of interesting opportunities and due caution is in my opinion one of the biggest and most interesting challenges, India can give you.
My top tips for women traveling to India: A good and extensive article, full with tips from one of the leading travel blogger about India.
Happy, safe solo traveling – India by yourself: Detailed and full with information, not only for women – worth reading!
Five reasons why travelling in India is not so scary: A beautiful article – I especially like the focus on how amiable and helpful many Indians are.
The women traveling solo question: An excellent article, showing that staying at home is way more dangerous, as most of the violence against women take place in their direct social environment.