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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.
I 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.
Despite 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.’
A 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.
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.
Sexual 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.
I 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.
I 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.
Don’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.
Life 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.
Melody 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.