Solo Female Travel in India – A Response to ‘India: the Story You Never Wanted to Hear’

Seeing the wondrous Taj Mahal rise up out of the early morning mist; being completely entranced by Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort and its Hall of Mirrors; sitting on the floor of a woman’s home, learning how to eat with my fingers; being fed and looked after by a beautiful Indian woman and her mother on a train to Delhi;  losing myself in the sunrise at Hampi…

I had so many incredible, personal moments in India. Have you read my blog posts about them? No, you haven’t. Why? Because I haven’t written them.

When I come to write personal accounts of my time in India, I get a bad taste in my mouth and decide to leave it for another day. I just can’t talk about India as if it was this beautiful, positive experience that I will forever cherish. It’s not that there weren’t beautiful, positive moments; it’s that they were all so closely tied in with feelings of anger and fear that I can’t separate the two.

This week I came across this article by RoseChasm (RC): India: the Story You Never Wanted to Hear. It is one woman’s account of her time spent studying in India, which was “half dream half nightmare”.

When people ask me about my experience studying abroad in India, I always face the same dilemma. How does one convey the contradiction that over the past few months has torn my life apart, and convey it in a single succinct sentence?

“India was wonderful,” I go with, “but extremely dangerous for women.”

As soon as I read this, I knew exactly what she meant. It is a dilemma. Even now I want to point out that I am not on any kind of vendetta against the country. In fact, I have consciously chosen to be relatively quiet about my 10 weeks in India is because I feel it is discourteous to all the wonderful people I met there to only criticise it. And yet I feel it would be misleading to write about India without criticising it.

There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailer’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.

This resonates so strongly with my own experience of India that she may as well have plucked the words I could not find right out of my mind.

It may sound exaggerated to some. Indeed, I know women who have visited India and had none of these issues. However, I also met far more women who struggled with sexual harassment while travelling there.

A few days ago, a response to the original article was published: Same India-Different Story. I clicked on the link expecting to read another woman describe her time in India as a perfectly pleasant experience. Instead, I was disappointed to read a completely inadequate response to the initial piece.

The “different story” is in fact no different at all. She states that she “was also very frightened”, “felt violated many times”  and was “targeted with harassment”. Of course, she also states that she met “a solid handful of warm and honest Indian men”. In essence, she describes the very same contradiction that RC chose to write about. The only difference is that RC did not explicitly say that it was not every single Indian man who harassed her.

The rest of her response points out that harassment and rape occurs just as much in America and that the original article is dangerous as it creates a stereotype which can be judged harshly.

Yes, sexual violence does occur worldwide. Women have to ward off the unwanted advances of men whether in Mumbai or Milan. However, that it is as common in somewhere like America as it is in India, I cannot say. I find it hard to believe based on my own experience. But that is not the argument.

I can’t abide it when people pick on a singular aspect of an argument (not the central discussion) and then respond by pushing their own, separate quarrel to the fore. Another example of this is when, in response to an article about female sexual harassment, one states that the same thing happens to men and carries on an argument about the fact. Very well, that is true – but that is not the point of the initial discussion.

So what am I getting at here?

RC’s article presents a side of her experience in India which needs to be discussed. It does not mean that there are no good experiences to be had there or that every Indian man is out to get you. But it does mean that women travelling alone in India need to exercise caution. No matter what the situation is in other countries, sexual violence on women is a real, undeniable problem in India. Women travelling there need to be alert at all times and should think seriously beforehand about how they will handle and cope with the harassment.

And just to make it really clear – I am not in any way, shape or form saying that a woman does not need to take precautions in Western society. What I am saying is that unwanted attention from men in India is more prevalent and overt than one would experience elsewhere.

* * *

The stress of RC’s visit to India manifested itself as PTSD upon her return to America. I came home with a few demons of my own, which I think I am still trying to exorcise.

Before visiting India I had high expectations. I knew to expect the dirt, noise, pollution, etc. and that did not phase me (I had just spent 12 weeks living out of a truck in Africa after all). But I also had hopes for something more… something that would make it all worth it.

Quite frankly, I came home disappointed. Here and there I had glimpses of something special – that magical, mystical India of my dreams – but they were so bogged down in all the other shit that I found it hard to make them the focus of my journey there.

As my friend Davinia pointed out, “I remember when you were there and I was speaking to you, you ALWAYS mentioned [the harassment]. It was ubiquitous.” Skype conversations with her and others were an opportunity where I could finally have a good rage about one thing or another that had angered me since my last chat with them, whether it was the cat calling, groping or something completely different like the outright hypocrisy of such a supposedly spiritual nation.

Occasionally I see India on the TV or flip through some of my photos and I briefly feel a warm glow in my chest. It wasn’t all bad. Sadly, however, I don’t know if I will ever write a really personal piece about India and leave out the negative side.

I will leave you with this:

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7 Responses

  1. Sarah says:

    You mention the hypocrisy of a spiritual nation and I can’t help but immediately think of Malta. I wonder if your feelings for India are, in some way, linked to your feelings and experiences of Malta which may be why you find it hard to talk about them? I know that’s not the whole story but it might go some way to explaining your feelings.

    I have to say, it upsets me a little bit that this country has had such a negative effect on you. I didn’t realise that it had affected you so much but try to remember the good parts over the bad and remember that it is your experiences that shape who you are so, rather than dwell on the negatives, celebrate the positives and show us how strong your travelling experience has made you x

    • Hannah says:

      Before India I hadn’t lived in Malta for a few years so I didn’t think about it so much but when I came back here afterwards I was immediately struck by the similarities.

      It’s not that I find it hard to talk about my experiences; it’s that I feel disrespectful to the amazing Indian people I met when I discuss India in a negative way. But I just can’t talk about it in a fully positive manner because it feels dishonest.

      I don’t think it had a negative effect on me (at least a long-lasting one anyway). I experienced negative things, but overall my time there did what travel is supposed to do – it made me grow. I had the option to get a flight out of there any time I wanted but I chose to say because even negative experiences are useful.

  2. I love the honesty. Thank you for sharing dear Hannah!

  3. Thanks for sharing, I appreciate your honesty. I think India is a destination for seekers, not tourists — which is a whole different attitude. This is not to excuse the bad behaviour of some Indian men, not at all. I wish the culture would change and respect women more, of course. But it may help visitors to India if they adjust their expectations.

    I have travelled extensively in India, 17 months, on my own, and I personally haven’t experienced very much of this kind of behaviour. I don’t know why. But I do know that I never went to India expecting it to be like Canada. I have always practised “safe travel” there, always dressed modestly, etc. But perhaps more importantly, I went with the attitude of a seeker and explorer, and saw everything as a lesson and a teacher.

    • Hannah says:

      Hi Mariellen, I agree that there is a difference in attitude and that such a difference can change your perspective of a place completely. However, I can’t agree that one’s personal attitude affects whether one experiences harassment or not. Like you, I expected India to be completely different to what I had known previously. I dressed modestly and also practised “safe travel”. Unfortunately, that did not change the behaviour I experienced, even when I teamed up with other women travellers.

      That said, as I expressed in this blog post, I hate to only say negative things about a place. I would still never tell someone not to visit India, but I would be honest about my own experience so that they can be mentally prepared.

      Regardless of (and possibly due to) the difficult experiences I had, India was certainly a teacher and I learnt many valuable lessons there.

  4. prem says:

    Hannah, last week I read this article about american women experience in a Indian news channel, that time i compared her experience with your journey and thought may be that women didn’t took precaution/ travel advise like mingle with local like wearing local clothes like chudithar and not roaming at late night. Also at that time, i thought Hanna look like a Indian with black hair and chudithar, so may be you just mingled with locals. Infact on seeing you in TVS scooter with chudithar, you look like one among us. But when i read your article, i felt you too have such negative experience here. i think the entire article is about US women experience, could be point us what you have experienced that help future travelers. I feel mostly dressing have a big say in it, in India when you walk with western clothes not just mens, even womens stare at you. And also hope you doing well.

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