India: The Stay Safe Guide

I travelled in India a couple of years after the infamous Delhi Gang Rape in 2012, an atrocity that sparked national riots and horror around the world. In the months that followed, several more high profile crimes against women in India became global news. While I tend to take a pragmatic approach to crime, doing my best to ignore alarmist headlines and look at statistics in relation to other factors such as population in order to guesstimate the level of risk, I can’t deny that those stories weighed heavily on my mind prior to my trip. As much as I wanted to downplay it, the unpleasant reality is that India can be a dangerous place for female travellers. In order to be as prepared as possible I researched as many tips for staying safe in India as I could and found the following to be the most useful in practice;

1. Wear a wedding band.  

In South Asia, there exists a behaviour known as ‘eve teasing’. This misleadingly playful term is a euphemism for the darker behaviour of harassment and groping that women in this part of the world are frequently subjected to. Whistles, staring, catcalls, wandering hands, sexual invitations and verbal abuse fall into this category of behaviour and, unfortunately, the vast majority of female travellers will experience this negative attention in varying degrees of severity. One recommended way to minimise this unwanted attention is to wear a wedding band on your ring finger. I don’t know to what extent this lessened the attention that I received as I wore one for my entire trip but I found that it made me feel more secure. Furthermore, when approached by men and asked who I was travelling with I always replied ‘my husband’ and the line of enquiry promptly shut down. Another recommended precaution for females travelling alone is to check into hotels using the prefix of ‘Mrs.’ so that if the booking information were to fall into the wrong hands the idea that you are probably an older women, one that is possibly travelling with a male companion, is implied.

2. Keep sunglasses to hand. 

Making eye contact with men in India, even inadvertently, can be misconstrued as flirting. It is important for female travellers to be aware of their gaze and the message that it might communicate. For example, if a woman were to find herself receiving unwanted male attention in the West, a withering look may be her instinctual response. Unfortunately that response in India could be viewed by the perpetuator as a sign of encouragement. Wearing sunglasses neutralises this issue.

3. Carry a scarf. 

My large, black scarf was invaluable to me while in India. While I dressed conservatively, the scarf provided an extra layer of coverage and, when wearing tank tops and t-shirts, concealed my chest from view. If I felt that I was attracting unwanted attention, I could flip it up from my shoulders over my head. The true value of my scarf was revealed in Agra, when the requests for pictures reached an all time high. Throughout my time in India I was frequently asked to stand in pictures with Indian families. This is an extremely common request issued from locals to tourists and although many tourists refuse for a variety of reasons, ranging from feeling objectified to feeling embarrassed to not wanting to have their time wasted, I mostly accepted because the requests were consistently polite, I didn’t want to cause offence and because I didn’t see the harm. It struck me as somewhat ungenerous or miserly to refuse something as simple as a quick picture. In Agra, however, the requests were constant, which made walking around freely more difficult. Wearing the scarf on my head greatly lessened the number of requests that I received and spared me the awkwardness of having to refuse. This tip is especially relevant for blondes as they garner the most attention

4. Transport

Female taxi companies are springing up all over India. As well as using female drivers, many of these taxis are fixed with panic buttons, GPS systems and recording devices. The female drivers carry pepper spray and many are trained in self defence. While in Delhi I used a company called Women on Wheels  who, according to the company website, have since expanded into Gurgaon, Rajastan, Jaipur and Kolkata. Also operating in Delhi are Sakha Cabs for Women and an extremely affordable chauffeur service run by the same company called Sakha On Call. Hiring a private driver from this company for eight hours costs just under £10. Elsewhere in India are Viira Cabs and Priyadarshini in Mumbai, Shetaxi in Kerala, Ola Pink and Angel City Cabs in Bangalore and a host of others. If opting to use public transport, research what is available and choose your mode accordingly. Certain trains have female-only and first class carriages that are marginally more expensive and considerably less crowded. On the overnight train I slept on an upper berth. My nose was practically touching the roof but I felt safe and secure perched in the rafters. If taking a public bus, which is not something that I personally did, I read that it is advisable to board last so that you are positioned as close to the exit as possible.

5. Personal Padlock

Many of the cheaper hotel doors in India are secured by padlock and the guest has no way of knowing how many padlock keys are in circulation. To be safe, pack your own larger padlock alongside the smaller cable locks used for luggage. The cleaning staff will be unable to enter but if this is an issue simply be there to let them in or only use the personal lock at night. This precaution goes hand in hand with using ‘Mrs.’ as the reservation prefix. In 2013 the Guardian reported that a female traveller from London was forced to jump from her second floor hotel balcony in Agra to escape the advances of her hotel manager. While in India I heard several similar stories. It is natural to let your guard down while in your hotel and the chances of something occurring are slim but, as these incidents unfortunately highlight, female travellers, especially when travelling alone, need to be vigilant at all times.

6. Be firm

An air of confidence goes a long way in India. Walk purposefully, do not stop for small talk and do not be afraid to say ‘no’, firmly and loudly, if something makes you feel uncomfortable. As I was told several times by numerous people, it does not pay to appear timid or vulnerable in India. It is also important to remember that, as in the rest of the world, the overwhelming majority of people in India are kind, friendly and welcoming. If you feel like you are on the receiving end of unacceptable behaviour and loudly speak up it is likely that someone nearby will come to your aid.

7. Charitable giving.

This point is not so much concerned with safety but with the contentious issue of begging. I’m not sure that it’s appropriate for anyone to categorically say what you should or shouldn’t give to the people that are begging in the street. The general online consensus is that giving should be avoided as, in the longterm, it does more harm than good. However, when faced with child wearing rags and so thin that they could slip down a drain, saying no becomes a heart wrenching challenge. It’s a difficult situation and I think that people should research prior to their trip and do what they think is best. I travelled with people who gave nothing, ever, no matter the circumstance. I also travelled with people who gave frequently and often found themselves surrounded and followed as a result. Each camp harshly judged the other. It is a personal choice and opinions vary. There are, however, some guidelines, one of which is to avoid giving street children money or closed packets of food as they will be forced to hand them over to whoever has sent them into the street in the first place. It is better to give bananas, crisps or packaged foods that you can open before you hand them over to prevent them being taken for resale.

Emergency numbers;

– 100:  Local Police

– 101: Fire Service

– 102: Ambulance

Note;

When I read this post back to myself it undeniably paints an off putting picture of India. The purpose of this post is not to discourage female travellers from going to India, it is an incredible country and, for many, the experience of a lifetime. I have detailed my own personal experiences here. The purpose of this post encourage travellers to be proactive and take precautions in order to have the best trip possible!

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