I have traveled to 18 countries and over 50 cities in Asia and Europe, and I walked around by myself at all hours of the day and night. I had never felt unsafe anywhere except in India.
Feeling unsafe was a pretty new experience for me. I have started traveling by myself since I was 11 years old, and I had always relied on the kindness of strangers without feeling that they were out to get me. Prior to my India trip, I had never felt scared as a solo female traveler.
During the planning stage for my 3-week backpacking trip in India, numerous people (both Indians and foreign travelers alike) have warned me about what India is like when it comes to women. “Don’t go out at night” is the common advice. “Don’t go out alone,” others said.
What they didn’t say was that whether you would go out during the day or be with other people, if you’re a woman, you may still get sexually assaulted.
I had experienced the worst of this country in Varanasi, the religious capital of India.
(Read my story as it came out in the national daily, Indian Express: “I had traveled alone to many places but I never felt unsafe till I came to India.”)
It was Holi festival, and a group of us from the guesthouse decided to join the street celebration. A Couchsurfing member was supposed to go with us but he stood us up, so we decided to go on our own at 9am. Aside from myself, there was one guy (Canadian), a Frenchwoman, and two Japanese women.
We played Holi with gusto, getting drenched and drenching locals in turn with liquid colors. One thing we noticed was that, out on the streets and aside from girl children and female tourists, there were no Indian women around. Before the day ended, I was to learn why.
Sometime during our walk, we were joined by another Canadian guy and a local man. After an hour, when the Frenchwoman and the Japanese girls expressed their wish to go back to the hostel, the rest of us decided to push through and walk along the ghats (a series of steps leading down to the river Ganges), feeling it was too early to return (it was only 10am).
By that time, we could see a lot of Indian men in groups, playing Holi with tourists. It meant dousing us with colored water and smearing colors on our cheeks and arms.
Not wanting to endure more smearing, I would always take the long way around when we were about to meet a group of Indian men. One of the Canadians noticed, and he told me, “Why are you letting them bully you? You should walk straight and proud.”
I thought his remark was naive, but I let it be. I continued my roundabout route every time we encountered Indian guys. I’m adventurous, yes, and I want to experience a local celebration, but I’m not stupid.
Unfortunately, there was a part along one of the ghats where it was very difficult not to go straight ahead. If I had taken a roundabout route, it would have meant walking very close to the Ganges River. So I decided to walk behind the Canadians, intending to walk fast and avoid as many of the men as possible.
The minute our groups met, I was immediately surrounded by seven or so Indian guys, around four of them groping me. I remember flailing around, wanting contact with anyone of them so that I could scratch or pinch and hopefully draw blood, but they knew what to do. After grabbing, they would step back.
The worst of it was the laughter, and the fact that even though they had drank, they didn’t seem intoxicated at all. There were both teenagers and adults, and they knew perfectly well what they were doing.
My Canadian friends were shocked. They kept on shouting, “Stop it! Stop it!”
When I was finally able to get away, I had to sit down on the ghat to calm myself. The local guy who was with us had disappeared, and we were left there trying to get a grip on what happened.
I was lucky it was all that happened to me in India. I didn’t have to jump down from my balcony window to avoid being raped by the hotel manager, nor was I drugged or raped by the hotel owner’s son.
What I had experienced is called Eve teasing, a prevalent form of sexual abuse on women in India. The use of the biblical name “Eve” implies that the assault is the woman’s fault for being a temptress.
An American friend told me later that I should have worn a baggy shirt so as not to appear attractive. What he doesn’t know is that sexual assault has nothing to do with clothing or appearance; just the fact that I was a woman was enough.
When we got back to the hostel, the Canadian and I never talked about what happened, but I did talk about it to other guests a few days later. One of them was 27-year-old Monique, a German national who was also traveling in India by herself. She told me that during Holi, she was also on the streets in Delhi celebrating it with another guy, who was also coincidentally a Canadian.
They were walking along when they also met a group of Indian men who surrounded her and began groping. She crossed her arms on her chest to protect herself, but two men grabbed them to open her up to the others. What was worse was that there was a policeman nearby; it seemed that even the presence of authority couldn’t stop her attackers.
After that incident, everything seemed sinister to me, even during daytime. I remember going to an internet cafe the next day, wanting to work at least one hour. Unfortunately, the guy at the shop kept on telling me he would give me a massage, touching me on the shoulder and arms. There was only one other customer, so I rushed sending my email. I didn’t want to be left alone there with him!
I took every precaution as a solo traveler. I didn’t go out alone, I didn’t go out at night, and I dressed very conservatively. Still, it happened to me. People might say that I shouldn’t have gone out at all, that it was my fault for joining the celebration.
What kind of a life is that?
What kind of a society is it that gives men freedom to molest women, even in public?
I told my story to local friends in Delhi and both of them told me that Eve teasing is pretty normal in India. Women of all ages and socio-economic status experience it at some point in their lives. That’s why, they both said, they don’t go out after sunset, or if they do, they don’t use public transportation.
As an independent woman used to being on my own, I couldn’t believe what I heard. What must it be like to live as a woman in India? (Read the story of an affluent woman living in New Delhi: How it feels to be a woman in India) By sunset, you’re expected to be home, otherwise, anything that might happen is on your head. You will not go out during public celebrations. In fact, you should never go out at all!
I remember wanting to go home immediately after Varanasi, but I was so glad I pushed forward with my trip. I couldn’t say anything memorable with my one day in Agra to see the Taj Mahal, but I loved my stay so much in Jaipur.
Unlike Varanasi, Jaipur made me feel welcome. There were the requisite touts, but I had never felt threatened by any of them. A local shop owner befriended me and as his shop was just across the Hawa Mahal, I took to spending time there to watch the sunset while he remained on the streets looking for customers.
I was very grateful for Jaipur. Even though I still followed the warnings of not walking around at night, I felt that my love for India which I thought had gone forever in Varanasi was rekindled there.
I still think that as an independent woman, I can never live in India, no matter how beautiful this country may be. However, I know that I would be back there someday, and I would still travel solo. Knowing what I know now about what it’s like to travel alone there, I think I would be able to take care of myself better.
My experience in Varanasi hasn’t turned me off India forever, and I have only Jaipur to thank for it. The Pink City saved me and gave me back my sense of control, and for that, I will forever be grateful.
Have you traveled alone to India? What was your experience there?
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Aleah Taboclaon is a freelance writer and editor. She likes running (completed one marathon, training for the next!), diving (PADI open water diver), and traveling with her Kindle. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also email her; she would love to hear from you!