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Despite issues of safety, women should continue to travel to India, by Melody Fears

cow in india

The issue of safety for female travelers has been nowhere more heightened than in India recently. We had a few difficult experiences during our travels to India and wanted to feature the experience of a solo female traveler and avid India traveler. When Melody Fears first traveled through India in 1997, she vowed never to return, based on the unwanted male attention she experienced. Find out how her entire perspective changed on subsequent trips and why she has now based herself (at least for the short-term) in the very country she thought she would never return to.

Violence and sexual harassment against women in India is a hot topic in Western media recently, but this is not a new development. Instead, this treatment of women is so ingrained in Indian society that it has its own name, Eve-Teasing, and specially trained police focused exclusively on combating it.

However, as high profile rape cases of female tourists hit the news this year, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India estimate that female tourists traveling to India dropped 35 per cent in the first three months of 2013 compared to the year before.

During the months and years I have spent in the country, I have personally experienced numerous occasions where I felt sexualized, demeaned and sometimes threatened. Not by all men, or even half. But it happens far, far more than I would like.

So why would I suggest that female travelers, even solo female travelers, still make their way to India? Because it is this very issue that played a major role in transforming my life.

India beach reflectionI first came to India in 1997. I was 23 and dreamed of losing myself in the sights, sounds and spices of the mystical sub-continent. Instead, I was groped, called names, invited to bed and left feeling shocked when, in Goa, busloads of men would pull up, get out, take pictures of bikini-clad female tourists on the beach, get back on the bus and leave. These instances all added up to dominate the overall feeling of the trip, and when I left India three months later, I vowed never to return as long as I lived.

But I did come back. It took ten years and I was resistant, but the pull towards the Himalayas and the Tibetan Buddhist culture was strong. I knew very little about it but I also knew that there were lessons here that I needed to learn.

In 2007, I spent two months in Dharamsala and Ladakh and cocooned myself in a culture very different to that of the India I had been exposed to before. Even so, I quickly realized I was still hanging on to the anger I had toward the men from my previous experience.

India prayer flagsDespite the anger, that trip was the start of my love affair with the Himalayan people and I knew I would return. My father was ill at the time and I wasn’t able to go back to the mountains until 2011, but it was something my sister said on a two-week holiday to Kerala, southern India, in 2010 that changed everything for me.

It was her first trip to the country and I was amazed with the ease at which she seemed to settle in. We had only been there a few days when she looked at me and said:

‘I get it. I get India. You have to leave it all at the airport. When you fly to India, you must leave all your values, pre-conceived ideas, conditioning and expectations behind. The only way to experience this country is with totally open eyes, open arms, an open mind and an open heart. You get out of India what you put in. If you come with fear, that’s what you get, and if you come with love, you will be shown it in such phenomenal proportions that it will change your life.’

India sunsetA few months later, three days into the New Year, I flew to Mumbai and spent the whole of 2011 in India. Those first few weeks were some of the hardest of my life. Grieving my father, I knew I was being drawn to India to learn how to heal. I was also determined to discover the country that I kept getting drawn back to – and not just Tibetan, but Indian India. And so, for three months I travelled a large portion of the country, first the southern states and then up through the middle, using only local buses and straying far from the well-worn tourist trail. To say that I felt like a second-class citizen would be to say that Noah’s Flood was just a drizzle.

India woman washing clothesIt is not my place to comment on how hard life can be for Indian women, but I saw what they do to keep themselves and their families alive and the way they can be treated as objects or even slaves.

This extends outside of the household into that very tangible public sexual harassment that I, too, experienced. This harassment is widespread and overwhelmingly accepted. The euphemism used to describe it, eve-teasing, might sound innocent enough but in reality, this is India’s curse: full-on gropes, stalking and acid-throwing. In this Wall Street Journal article, the journalist declares that the term ‘eve teasing’, a euphemism of which both parts by definition blame the female herself, must die.

Even just the idea that this is as simple as ‘teasing’ is absurd. It is such a major issue that there are entire police cells embedded as task forces to combat it and signage on major city streets constantly warn against it. But the fact remains that many Indian women put up with this their whole lives, usually without any help at all.

Indian womenSexual harassment is different for Western women in India, but not better. Much of the understanding of western culture comes from film and television, which has far more explicit sexual content than Indian media. This can lead Indian men to believe Western women to be more willing and ‘easy.’  Knowing that this is often how I am perceived makes me more uncomfortable around Indian men that I don’t know.

Feelings like this are common for female tourists, and tourism companies like Thomas Cook India have not only started exclusive women-only tours in India, but also offer services like free cellphones and emergency numbers for police stations and hospitals.

My experiences of unwanted male attention and sexual harassment were so constant, so emotionally draining that when I arrived in Rajasthan seven weeks into my yearlong trip, I holed up in a hotel room for two weeks, leaving only to buy supplies when necessary.

After two weeks in that room, I had a very clear realization that it wasn’t the men that were causing me to suffer, but the way I was reacting to them. This is not excusing the behavior, but my power lies not in changing the behavior of Indian men, but in my reaction to the adversity I feel because of it.

I went on to spend the next nine months in the Himalayas learning about unconditional love and compassion, although putting these lessons into practice was still a challenge.

India mountainsI tried my best to navigate the issue without letting it affect me, and by the time I left India in December 2011, I was totally in love with the country. So much so, that I knew I’d be back as soon as possible.

I spent the next twenty months in the UK, practicing the lessons I had learned in India. Meditation became – and still is – a key part of my life, and I explored all I could about consciousness. I learnt how to live in the present moment and the acceptance and universal love that follows.

Less than two months ago, I flew to India from the UK. I still find it incredible how differently I see and experience the country today to my first trip here. When I arrived, my initial reaction was the same – I felt victimized as I stood in Old Delhi station after dusk, hundreds of pairs of male eyes leering and letching at me – but then I simply stepped on the train, came straight up to Dharamsala and settled easily into my life here.

India cowI put into practice all that I’d learnt about living in the moment and love and compassion that I’d first encountered in the same town six years ago, and it all fell beautifully into place. The huge potential for spiritual growth that India offers women, the consciousness-expanding experience that so many come here for, is not meant to be had despite the men who try so hard to ruin it. The point is to come to India to reach that level of growth by learning to navigate through the challenge that their behavior creates.

IndiaDon’t get me wrong, I’d still rather it didn’t happen, but it does. The situation exists. How I deal with it is of my own free will. I choose to create conflict or to accept it as it is. By creating conflict, I create my own suffering.

Acceptance is not the same as condoning the behavior. It is wrong and measures need to be taken by the individual to ensure their own safety, and by humanity as a whole to bring an end to it. But I’ve noticed the huge difference it makes to me, whether I deal with it with anger or acceptance. Through acceptance – the anger now gone – I feel such a sense of empowerment, rather than being the victim of a hopeless situation, and it is the energy of this empowerment that will bring about positive change within India.

In the short time that I have stopped reacting to the lewd whistles and remarks, I have come to understand, appreciate and love India in a way I couldn’t dream of all those years ago.

Do I think the potential is there for it to be dangerous for women to travel alone to India? Yes. Would I recommend women travel here, even if they are solo travelers? Yes.  But please do your homework and follow all the advice. Stay safe. And if it’s your first trip, stay comfortable. Don’t do anything or stay anywhere that doesn’t feel right. But my biggest piece of advice would be that of my sister. Come with open arms, eyes, mind and heart. Be prepared to have your life changed in ways you can’t begin to imagine.

India dogLife is unsterilized here, unabridged; humanity and nature coexist. Life is lived completely in the present; for so many, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence. As travelers to India, we are so privileged to witness it unfold, to stand and watch cause and effect happen before our eyes. Everything makes sense at the same time as absolutely nothing does.

The lessons we can learn from that are truly life-changing.

India golden sunsetAbout Melody Fears

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMelody first left home with a bag on her back two weeks after her 18th birthday. She spent the next 21 years denying her inner nomad but keeping it satisfied with numerous travels, interspersed with time in the UK trying to do the ‘sensible thing.’ This year, she decided to embrace her nomad completely, packed her home on her back, and set off for a permanent life on the road. At the moment, she is in Dharamsala, India, finishing her first novel and enjoying being a full-time traveller. She spends her days writing, reading, learning, walking, drawing and having beautiful conversations with people. In February, she’ll fly to Thailand, and then she’ll see where life takes her.

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25 Comments

  1. Though not exactly an effortlessly actionable tactic, culture changes when exposed to other cultures, and if enough outsiders visit India, those inside the country will eventually have a somewhat different impression of those on the outside. Though of course their population is big enough that it’s quite a chore…still, I think visiting is likely to have a positive impact in some small way.
    SnarkyNomad recently posted..25 great travel quotes for inspiring global adventures

    1. Hi Snarky!
      Thanks for your comment… Yes, I totally agree. In the time I’ve spent here, I have experienced profound differences in the way I am treated depending on how touristy the place is I’m in. That is, not the places where tourists come for a day or two, spend big money and leave to be replaced by more of the same, but rather those places where travellers have made their homes for a while, where cultures are exchanged and real friendships are made.
      All over India, I have tried to find opportunities to talk to Indians about the reality of life in the West and am always happy to dispel myths that are perpetrated by poor quality media – and in general, the Indians are happy to listen and learn and have their misperceptions changed. In the sixteen years that I’ve been coming here, I can happily say that attitudes and opinions about westerners have become more realistic, at least in the larger towns and cities.
      I have also seen the negative effects of tourism that is not properly managed or regulated, the sudden influx of tourist cash to poor areas, and the abuse of lower caste workers (yes, the caste system does still exist) in the name of tourism and progress… But that is a subject for another post (and the non-regulation of tourism here is a lot of its charm)!
      India is westernising so fast you can see it happening. The influx of western influences via television and the Internet is becoming more and more apparent every day. And yet, huge areas of the country still live as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. If we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit these places and witness life lived so differently to ours, then it is also our responsibility – wherever we are – to ensure that the impression we give of our culture is respectable, responsible, civilised and true to life. This way, we can change the impression of life in the West for those who are unlikely to visit it.

      1. I am Indian male living here in Germany for couple of years now. I come from a small town in India and grew up playing cricket in gullies and watching the west only on TV and newspapers. Yes, many of us think that western women are ‘easy’ and there is a reason to it – until the age of early 20s … you are only exposed to media / internet version of west – which sadly enough highlights primarily sex and violence. This has now crept into local media and the likes. So, exposure to the west is very limited. And whether you are someone from west or east – you usually benchmark people based on your own experiences. For me seeing women wear shorts was also new and very different from real life experiences back in India. When I travelled to US – it was a culture shock to me because I was benchmarking everything against India – cost of food, lenth of skirts, size of homes, timeliness of bus, empathy and sprituality of locals etc. – they were all different. Many of my Indian friends who work in Nordics (where Indians are quite a rarity) – Indians get uncomfortable stares. This might be uneasy – but no one will openly address it. Generalizing that life of Indian women is not easy by western eyes – is also unfair. When I look at corporate boardrooms in Germany – I feel sorry for German women professionals. Look at top Indian banks and the women at top! So, from my perspective women are suppressed in west because they have limited freedom when it comes to job growth and child support. From an Indian perspective a grandfather not supporting his grandchild’s childcare – would be seen as putting pressure on the working mother. Also, what baffles me is lack of women priests in west. While going to office, I observe in trains that most of the young ladies wearing short skirts are always trying to adjust their skirts – well, if they are so free and no one is watching – why there is there a need to be conscious of it? So, point being there are so many things which purely from an educated Indian perspective are so difficult to understand when it comes to western women liberty. And same is true from a western point of view. Its all about understanding what a nation stands for culturally and adjusting to it. Being overly judgemental is a sure way of wasting precious time. Nothing more nothing less.

    1. Hi Natalie
      Thanks for your comment. India is an incredible country and deserves to be on every bucket list! My advice would be to just do it. Follow the advice for women travellers – cover your knees and shoulders, wear a scarf, and avoid eye contact – but otherwise go with as few ideas and plans as possible and just let yourself be free. The adventures and opportunities that await you are spellbinding!

  2. I’ve had no intention to ever visit India given the experiences I’ve read and heard from other travelers. To have that amount of unwanted attention as well would feel violating in a way. However I love the perspective that you have taken. I’m currently in South Africa. I always saw it as a dangerous country to live in. The crime and violence still exists yet I refuse to give into the fear factor and am experiencing this country on a different level this time . I was born here. I’m so glad to now know – my attitude towards this beautiful country has evolved into the positive !

    1. Hi Natasha,
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience. One of the most important – and amazing – lessons I have learnt is that we determine the life we lead by our thoughts and perceptions. If we choose to think, feel and see negatively, then that will be the way we experience life. If we choose to think, feel and see beauty, then our life will reflect that too. My changing attitude to India over the years proves this, and I am really happy to hear that you have come to experience your own home and your own life in such a positive way. Fear stops us feeling and experiencing so much. The opposite to fear is love, and once we allow that to be our guiding principle, life just gets more and more beautiful every day. The sun is always shining; we decide whether to pay attention to the clouds or not!

  3. Great article Melody! I think that it is difficult for us to understand the major cultural differences between the east and the west. I just finished reading a book about a female journalist who lived with a family in Afghanistan for a few months. Her tales of the belittlement and treatment of women made me cringe. I don’t think that treatment is ever justifiable, but it must be compartmentalized from a cultural perspective at the same time. I think as time goes on, things will change there. Thanks for sharing your story.
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    1. Hi Andy
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you liked the article.
      Yes, coming from the West, it is difficult to understand some of the cultural differences in India, especially being a woman. I have spent time in towns where I didn’t see another woman for days – not in the guesthouse, not in the shops, not in the restaurants, and certainly not in the streets – and initially I found this very difficult to deal with. However, over time I have come to learn about and understand these very different attitudes without judging them, and this has been key to Indian life opening up for me.
      Things ARE changing for women here, especially in the cities, and the rising awareness of and action against eve-teasing is most definitely a positive movement. I look forward to seeing how India will continue to change and embrace equality over the coming years.

    1. Hi Renuka
      Thanks for your comment – and I’m really glad you have had a great experience of travelling through India on your own. It really is the most stunning country and I am continually amazed by how diverse it is. I’ve also been touched many times by the hospitality of the people – especially those who have so little compared to me.
      I totally agree with you – not all Indian men are alike. I really wanted to get this point across in the piece, but I will say it again now! Considering most of the Indians I have contact with are men, it would be impossible to stay here if most of them were eve-teasers! Most of the men I have any contact with are decent, caring, family men. I really am talking about those whose actions and attitudes give a bad impression for all.

  4. Being an Indian I can say love to say that India is a beautiful country with lovely people. And I would like to ask one question to all the people saying that India is not safe, “IS THEY COUNTRY SAFE AND IS THERE CRIME IN THEY COUNTRY’ Every where there is love as well as crime together. There will be two sides of the coins which no one can ignore.
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    1. Hi Aktar
      Thank you for your comment. I love India too! I feel more of a sense of home here than anywhere else in the world, even London, where I have spent over half my life. Yes, there are good and bad people everywhere – some of the most incredible people I have ever met have been Indian men. And yes, there is sexual harassment and violent crime everywhere – the statistics for London are some of the worst in Europe. My post is not saying that India is not safe – you will see that I am encouraging as many people as possible (especially women) to come and experience your amazing country for themselves. What I am saying is that sexual harassment here is so widespread it can easily ruin many women’s experience of India. It took me many years and many trips until I found a way of navigating around it and I wanted to help other women do the same.
      There have been a number of gang rapes in India recently, but like you pointed out, these happen everywhere and are still (thankfully) rare and isolated incidents. It is not these that I am referring to but rather the everyday comments and touches that get very tiring and can be extremely upsetting.
      I hope you can appreciate the difference. The love I have for India is profound and the time I have spent here has changed my life. Most Indians I have met and spent time with have been friendly, generous and welcoming and seem genuinely happy to have me here. My piece refers to the men whose attitude towards women colour the experience negatively for so many.

    1. Hi Jeff
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, perspective is everything. However, I must point out that for women in India, sexual harassment is real. Being constantly stared at and having your picture taken by men is real. However, a change of perspective makes all the difference, and it is through this that we will learn and grow, as you so rightfully point out… the challenge is to get through the obstacles to allow your perspective to be changed.

  5. This is such a difficult topic, as harassment definitely happens, but on the other hand we also have to be careful not to stereotype. Like Melody said, not every Indian man is a groping monster. Women should also consider that India is a conservative country, so it is not appropriate in my opinion to laze around in sexy bikinis on a Goan beach. I am not surprised that men come in their busloads. You would never see an Indian woman go swimming in a bikini. They always go swimming fully clothed. It shouldn’t give men an excuse to behave that way at all, but Western women need to understand local customs a bit better too I think.
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    1. I agree with you, Tammy. I’m not excusing the men who do leer and letch at women, or the atmosphere of misogyny that still exists in many parts of the world, but in a country not your own, you should abide by the local customs, even if they seem foreign, antiquated or simply bewildering. In Egypt some of the girls I travelled with insisted on wearing the same skin baring, summer outfits they would wear in a Western country – they consequently had a very different experience from myself and a travel mate, who stuck to long, loose skirts and conservative tops.
      Peggy recently posted..5 Reasons Why Ski Chalets are Better Than Hotels‏

      1. Hi Tammy, Peggy
        Thanks for your comments, and I totally agree with you about respecting local customs – whatever the temperature and humidity here, I always cover my knees and shoulders and wear a scarf to hang over my chest… And I still suffer plenty of leering and letching!
        I do however feel that Goa is a different story and India as a whole accepts it as such. Tourists from all over the world fly to Goa to spend two weeks lying on a beach in the sun. I have spoken to both Indian men and women about this and no one seems to take any offence – as long as it is kept to Goa.
        But overall, yes, if you want to visit a country very different to your own, and immerse yourself in the culture and traditions, then the first rule must be to respect and abide by the local customs. Apart from anything else, as you pointed out Peggy, your experience is going to be so much richer and more authentic as a result.

      1. Hi Kapil
        I did visit Ajanta caves, and it was in nearby Jalgaon, where I spent three days, that I experienced the most extreme conservatism in terms of women that I have ever known…
        The images conveyed in the various art and literature that charts India’s cultural heritage cannot be used to comment on reality for Indians in the 21st century.

        1. What is your definition of ‘extreme conservatism’ – would be interested to know?

          Not allowing women to be priests in Church in Europe – that is the modern thought? Or, not letting women decide whether they can abort or not? That is not modernism. (there are many good things too – for sure!)

          Sadly enough, we are so bound by our ‘sanskars’ – the cultural understanding of other cultures is easier, if we change our glasses. As true for me – as true for you. For e.g., being in purdah is not a symbol of being conservative – you need to understand the history behind purdah. And wearing a bikini is also not a symbol of being modern.

          And an underlying insinuation that 21st century has to be different and better in a limited sense compared to other centuries is also difficult to understand. 21st century has highest number of deaths because of mental diseases. So, I don’t know what “reality for Indians” is or should be for 21st century! This statement that ‘we are in 21st century’ – limits us to appreciate what was good in past and what needs to be improved.

          (In no way I am demeaning your statement that India is partly conservative – but let’s not get judgemental about others. 21st century sapiens need to learn to judge themselves before being judgemental)

    1. Hi Pratibha,
      Yes! This is a beautiful country, and the more time I spend here, the more I love it!
      Thank you for the link – it perfectly captures the spirit of so many totally devoted family men I’ve met.

  6. Changing the entire social equilibrium will obviously take a very long time. But women have started using personal safety apps like SOS to make sure that they don’t fall prey to any obnoxious incident.

    1. Hi Kartik
      The social equilibrium is changing, although you’re right, it might take quite a while.
      Of course, safety apps are only tackling the symptoms and not the problem, but it’s definite progress that there is a greater understanding of the need for women to feel safe.

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