This is one of the top questions I get asked whenever I start talking to someone about my time spent living in Mumbai. With all the negative commentary in the news regarding the way women are treated in this country, it is perhaps no wonder why this concern is often raised.
My answer to the question, is it safe for western women to travel to India, is yes. As with all locations around the globe, do your homework before you visit, and once you arrive, use common sense to avoid putting yourself in harms way. I base this answer on my own experience in Mumbai, but also from talking to others who have been more adventurous than I, and have explored a little deeper into the ‘real’ India.
But that answer doesn’t really tell you the whole story. What will your experience be like as a western women travelling in a country of 1.2 billion? I think it’s fair to say, you will probably stand out a little; if not for your style of clothing, then your skin color. When I first arrived in Mumbai, I found it very disconcerting just how much people, men in particular, stared at me, and often at a very specific part of my body! Even when my eyes met the person looking, they would not look away, and quite often not smile (which was a little disconcerting). Little children were quite different though, they would often giggle if I smiled at them, and take my smile as an invitation to come closer.
Tip Wear sunglasses, take it as a given that you are going to be stared at.
While attitudes and behaviors towards women in India certainly seem to be different to what I am used to in the US and the UK, I have not personally felt physically threated during my stay. I usually feel more aggrieved at being ‘madam’ who is clearly nowhere near as important as ‘sir’ but that’s for another post!
I have read about western women being groped, or more commonly of men ‘brushing against’ them as they pass. The nearest I came to this was when a young boy on a bike smacked my backside as he went by. At the time I was not fazed, but my daughter who was visiting with me was quite alarmed. Her concern was based on the fact that we were so outnumbered. She felt threatened as even though at 5ft 8in we were taller than everyone around us, the mob mentality could prevail. This was also true of our experience on the beach in Juhu when celebrating Holi. Initially our group was greeted with fascination at a bunch of westerners enjoying the festivities. But once the local party goers realized that we were happy to have photos taken, it soon became quite intimidating, as the younger girls in our group were being surrounded and slowly moved further down the beach.
I find that India is probably the most fascinating country I have visited to date, but boy does it give me high blood pressure! Please don’t let the negativity surrounding security be the reason to pass on the opportunity to visit a country that will be sure to have a big impact on you.
So what can you do to help alleviate your security fears and make your experience of visiting India as positive as possible? Here are a few of my suggestions
This doesn’t mean wear those baggy harem pants, please. Putting images of Bollywood aside, Indians are quite conservative. Cover your shoulders and most of your legs (no daisy dukes here please) oh and no cleavage on display. Local attire is loose fitting, and very comfy, so consider buying a kurta (loose fitting tunic) as they can be picked up for relatively little cost. If you would like to know more, then take a look at the article I wrote about what to pack for a trip to India.
I remember when I first visited New York many years ago, I was a little freaked out about being safe travelling alone in Manhattan (I know some of my US friends will laugh at that statement). I was given the advice not to make eye contact with anyone, not to look like a tourist by staring up at all the buildings, and to walk with a purpose. I’m happy to report that this worked just fine for me.
In India, my advice would be to be firm, and stand your ground. Indians don’t like to hear the word no. You will have to be firm when asked for the umpteenth time if you would like to buy the item you just looked at on the market stall, a simple no thank you is not going to cut it here I’m afraid. I used to think it sounded so rude and a little harsh, but I have learned that a stern no is the only way to be ‘heard’. That said, I failed miserably at this the other day while out shopping. I was buying a few pairs of pants to go with my kurtas and wanted only dark options to look at. The sales guy really wanted me to buy some bright colors but I tried to explain that I just wouldn’t wear them. After about the third or fourth attempt I got firmer with him and said no, quite sternly I thought. However, when I unpacked my bag once home from shopping I discovered that I had been given (and charged for) a bright green pair along with my dark blue, green and black pair – I was not happy!
Carry yourself with confidence and do not be afraid to be ‘rude’ by loudly stating that you are not interested. To help avoid unwanted attention ensure you look like someone not to mess with. Sadly a smile is often perceived as an invitation to persist. If I smile at the man that knocks on my car window trying to sell me something that I would never want to buy in a million years (what is it with the giant balloons at the Gateway?) then he will just continue to show me whatever he is trying to sell. If I firmly say no and look away, he usually moves on to the next vehicle.
If you are going to travel around India then you will probably be taking some form of public transport. Here are a few pointers.
If you can, carry a mobile phone with numbers preprogramed. However, have a backup plan as if that phone dies you will need to know what numbers to call to get help (can you tell that happened to me?). Make sure that someone knows your itinerary, where you are supposed to be, and when. Keep in touch with friends via social media during your adventure so that you will be missed if things goes a little wrong.
I hope that you have found this article informative and useful. I wrote this post based on my own experiences in Mumbai, and hope that I have managed to remain respectful to my Indian friends. Please follow my adventures in Mumbai via my Instagram and Facebook posts where I try and share some of the amazing sights I witness. And if, like me, you enjoy traveling, then please sign up for my newsletter to receive a weekly note from me with useful printables related to travel.