To travel or not to travel to India: Karen Dias

This is a Guest Post by KAREN DIAS

The most recent ‘Incredible India’ video ad campaign shows a young woman of seemingly European descent traveling alone through India. She is seen drinking coconut water and being friendly with a man, playing chess with holy men, being helped after a fall by two men, cheering at a snake boat race on a boat filled with men, playing Holi surrounded by more men and strolling on what looks like a deserted beach with a male mahout and his elephant. Sadly, the truth is far from what the video depicts for foreign women traveling in India, and most of them will try their best to not find themselves alone in situations like the ones shown in the video.  Stories of foreign women being verbally and sexually harassed are not new in this country and being accompanied by male friends or relatives is almost never a deterrent.

Last year, I decided to celebrate Holi in Varanasi, it would be the first time three of my foreign friends would witness this colorful festival, one they had been looking forward to for many months. Early in the day, crowds of young men were already drunk and misbehaving along the banks of the holy river and out of the corner of my eye I caught two European women get carried away into a mob of frenzied young men who were dancing to loud Bollywood music. It was the beginning of what would soon turn out to be a nightmare. Few minutes later, I saw the girls fighting their way out of the crowd looking disheveled and shocked, one of them with her t-shirt ripped open. I spoke to them and they related how the men surrounded them and groped them all over while they were stuck in the circle. Over the next few minutes, they told me that since the beginning of the day, they had been groped by men who pretended to shake hands with them but instead touched their breasts and walked away. A young boy, not more than twelve, under the pretext of applying color to the girls’ face touched her breasts; she was quick to react and slapped him before he ran away. A group of us huddled close and some of the foreign women joined us as they thought there would be safety in numbers. Soon after, an overweight policeman casually walked up to us and warned us, ‘Please go back to your hotel. It is not safe for you to be out here, men are trying to tear women’s clothes.’ Bemused and taking the cops word seriously, we began to make our way back to our guesthouse realizing the situation was getting out of hand as hordes of men began to surround all the foreign women along the river.

We, hurriedly, made our way back; my female Filipina friend and two other foreign male friends accompanied me. Nearing our guesthouse, the ghats began to look deserted and we didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad one. We soon found out it was the latter. A group of six, obviously drunk men walked towards me wanting to shake hands, I politely refused by joining my hands, which instantly angered them. They began following us and verbally abusing us and in a matter of seconds; one of the men went up to my friend and grabbed her breast going on to call her a slut. She slapped him back which only enraged him and his group of friends further. Our male friends tried to break up the fight but they were larger in number than us and after trying to make peace, they let us go. We began to run in order to find a safe place to hide because we knew they would return and as predicted; few moments later, they returned brandishing sticks, calling out expletives while chasing after us.  In the nick of time, we found ourselves at the door of a local family who offered us water and let us wait at their doorstep till we thought it safe to leave. Julie Batula, 29, Filipino, says about the incident, “I realized immediately that they were drunk but I thought they would not dare do anything because we were accompanied by two men but that didn’t stop them. I didn’t think of filing a police complaint. Besides, would the Indian police actually be of any help?”

Many foreign women have recounted experiences where they have been molested on trains and buses and some have even found men groping them while they were asleep on long-distance buses. Thirty-year old Millie Schaden (name changed) from Germany has traveled solo to over 30 countries around the world and has spent four months traveling around India. She came across a rickshaw driver in Jodhpur who told her that he understood that European women like sex before proceeding to show her a pornographic video on his mobile phone. “I yelled at him and told him that that was inappropriate and his understanding of foreign women was well off the mark”, says Millie. Another time, Millie was traveling by train from Haridwar to Jodhpur and was accosted by a man who tried to wedge her near the toilet on the train and continued to grab her breast. She screamed in fright and fled the scene and approached a family who looked out for her and accompanied her to the toilet for the rest of the journey. Millie says, “ I have never encountered such behavior in any of the countries I’ve traveled to and it makes me feel extremely sad and used because I love traveling in India and would love to come back again someday.”

Travelers’ bible, the Lonely Planet online guide for India warns, ‘While there’s no need to be paranoid, you should be aware that your behavior and dress code is under scrutiny and that local men may have a misguided opinion of how foreign women behave. Getting constantly stared at is something you’ll have to get used to.” ‘Getting used to’ seems to the be the most common advice meted out to female travelers on most travel blogs and forums as well, where foreign women are quick to warn their fellow travelers that staring, eve-teasing and groping are not uncommon in the country. The guide goes on to inform women that they must dress in ‘culturally appropriate clothing’. ‘Getting used to’ and ‘dressing appropriately’ is what Indian women are asked to do too as if to suggest that there is no other solution to this problem.

Erica Hobbs, 28, USA spent four months traveling in India and vividly remembers an incident that occurred while she was sitting outside the Jama Masjid in Delhi where a boy who was no more than twelve approached her and told her she was sexy. She asked him if he knew what ‘sexy’ meant, to which he said, “I fuck you” and ran across the road to join his friends where they stared at her and giggled as she walked away. Erica is quick to point out that that she was fully covered as she had just returned from visiting the mosque. “I felt extremely violated and objectified by what happened also saddened upon wondering why a young boy would behave that way and what kind of conditions he is being raised in.” Erica was also molested, again in Delhi, in the Paharganj area, by an Indian motorcyclist who rode by and grabbed her breast and being accompanied by two male friends didn’t deter the perpetrator. “I had already been warned by my friends about sexual harassment in India so I came here expecting it but the incident with the young boy upset me more. I was shocked to hear those words come out of the mouth of a child. Is he representative of the next generation of Indian men? And, if he is, then the problem is not going away, rather it is worse than I originally thought.”

Religious gatherings and festivals are the most common venues where foreign women are hassled. During such festivities, security for women is always at its lowest and groups of men looking for trouble are high. Last Shivratri, thirty-one year old American, Janica Snyder was almost thrown off a bridge into the Ganges in Haridwar by a group of men who surrounded her insisting on taking photographs with her even though she refused them many times. Janica admits being afraid at that moment because she was worried about the crowd mentality especially during large festivals in India. Luckily, a policeman nearby came to her rescue and began to beat the men with a stick who then quickly dispersed. “Although I have been fortunate compared to so many other women, the constant staring and groping and fear of more serious assault has kept me from befriending any men here. I’m less likely to return to India and even if I do, I will not stay for long periods of time which saddens me because there are many beautiful places in the country I would like to explore.”

Traditionally, Indian women are not found or even allowed to travel alone especially on long-distance, overnight trains or buses. The idea of a foreign woman doing the same seems indigestible and this may also be a reason for why they are attacked, as Indian men may perceive this as unacceptable behavior that requires ‘punishment’. In India, foreign and especially white women have long been considered to be of ‘loose character’ and ‘without morals’. Television shows and Bollywood continue to portray foreign women in roles where they are made to dress scantily, holding alcoholic drinks and dancing in clubs, a role that apparently seems unsuitable for Indian women. In a country where the phrase ‘mehman ko bhagwan mante hai’ which roughly translates to ‘A guest is God’ is so commonly used, we do very little to prove that statement holds any truth. In a country which prides itself on being hospitable, we understand very little of how a woman must be treated. For all these women and many more, India is not that incredible after all.

29 thoughts on “To travel or not to travel to India: Karen Dias

  1. “Traditionally, Indian women are not found or even allowed to travel alone especially on long-distance, overnight trains or buses. The idea of a foreign woman doing the same seems indigestible and this may also be a reason for why they are attacked, as Indian men may perceive this as unacceptable behavior that requires ‘punishment’. In India, foreign and especially white women have long been considered to be of ‘loose character’ and ‘without morals’.

    Does the author have any idea what she’s taking about? The millions of Indian women who migrate and travel for livelihood are invisible now? Forget about the rising numbers of Indian middle class women who travel alone for work or for pleasure, thousands of working class women have to travel in the unsafest of conditions to reach their workplaces, get household necessities like water or firewood have been doing it for ever. The idea that only foreign women get attacked is increasingly becoming pervasive. Those who cannot see how their privileges are blinding them to the plight of millions of other women in similar situations have no place to make sweeping generalised statement stereotyping a whole country. Holi has been always been an excuse to grab women. Have you heard those songs about Krishna molesting the gopis, hiding their clothes and suchlike? Stereotyping India as a place of colourful [Hindu] festivities is as much ‘unpreparedness’ as anything else. The author mentions Lonely Planet here. Which, along with a whole range of other travel books, is the last preserve of Orientalist writing.
    I do not want to belittle anyone’s experience of harrassment. And if i appear to be doing so above, I am sorry. But the recent spate of white tourists writing about their ‘exceptional’ experiences of sexual harrasment in India are really often too uncritical and lacking any nuance. Here area some articles:

    http://www.firstpost.com/living/tourist-trap-the-dumb-white-chick-vs-creepy-indian-lecher-debate-1052873.html

    http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1024351

  2. Pingback: To travel or not to travel to India: Karen Dias | Law, Life and I

  3. I am very sorry you had to go through some much bullsh** in India. And I do think that the Incredible India campaign is to blame for depicting situations in their ads that can mislead foreign women to think they can travel alone, party freely in public and get into touch with random male locals without it holding any danger. As you had to experience yourself this is not so and I do understand that if you went through experiences like yours in a short time you must be shocked by “Incredible India” which is very sad because India is a country of great warm and helpful people who will try their best to make your stay there a pleasant one.

    I lived and worked in Mumbai for one year and of course traveled places like Varanasi, Kolkata, Delhi, Jaipur and so and and so forth. In a whole year the thing that happened mostly concerning sexual harrassement was especially at tourist places of course the stares and the random “Hello, i love you. my place ok?” and in packed crowds groping does happen. The only one very dangerous situation i had within one year was a drug addicted (or at least i do believe he was as his eyes were dilated) who started following and groping when we couldn’t get a cab to get us home a short way in south mumbai and decided to walk for 15min (BAD IDEA). If i hadn’t spoken some Hindi i wouldn’t have been able to ask a guard of the nearest house to help us out.

    After the last incident (that was halfway through my stay) i was definitely more alert in the streets for a while but still allover looking back i had an awesome experience there meaning the positive ones by far outweighed the bad ones.
    I do think that is though because I was informed about the dangers that women (forein as well as indian) are exposed to. My mother stayed in India with her ex-husband for some time, i know many girls who traveled India before, i am a South Asian Studies major, which actually i think helped the least but it should sharpen your feel for the distance you have to maintain between the genders, and most important I had Indian colleagues and friends i would get advice from about my travel plans and how to spend my free time.
    People would constantly advice me on what is safe and what is not. They would say, don’t go to Ganpati festival at Chowpatti Beach, people will be drunk and it is very dangerous. I was longing so much to see it but took my friend’s advice. Or that you shouldn’t travel allone, most of all not in the evening and night. That you shouldnt let yourself be chat up in the streets by random people. That you should be careful to only ride the ladies’ compartment in the local trains. Everyone was always very concerned to keep me away from potentially dangerous situations.
    And not even only my friend and colleagues but even countless other people helped me out when i was on occasion on my way allone. Like the guard who i already mentioned, who escorted us to our house. Or the girl who got off with me from the local bus to make very sure i knew where i was going (cause i wasn’t sure where the venue was that i had to go to). Or the young man in the same bus who looked up the bus stations as i wasn’t able to figure out where i would have to get out anyway. Or the girl who pulled me by the arm into the ladies’ compartment when accidently almost i would have gotten into the mixed compartment. Or the policeman on the street who one night when we were out with friends at marine lines adviced me in the politest and most concerned way that i should try to get home soon as it wasn’t safe.
    All these people are very aware of the dangers for women in India and they all were caring about me making good rather than bad experiences. And I am very grateful to every single one of them because even if bad things happened to me in India too, for the most part I felt cared for and very wellcomed.
    And i still do miss the random chats with aunties at the vegetable seller or in the local trains. I miss the cheeky school children. The shop owners who knew me and would give me my groceries without even having to ask anymore what i needed or who would slightly offended ask why i hadn’t come in a long time. I miss all the great people i got to know who showed me their homes and great places to visit.
    Even though there is a danger to women in India, the people I met made my allover experience such a wonderful one, that i want to return as soon as possible by any means.

    The danger to women in India is something sadly nobody can’t deny. The people who are most aware of it are Indians themselves as it is not a matter of white or not. Indian women are stared, groped and molested just as much and just the same. Actually i think they are even more targeted when found allone at a “inappropriate” time…because they should know. Changes need to happen but this will need a lot of time.
    India is still a country where millions of people who don’t really have anything to lose, or who grew up in family structures where women don’t have any say about their lifes and bodies and the only contact many of these young men of that social layer have with the west is internet p*rn. These are things a female traveler should be aware of. This won’t give you 100% protection. But it will increase your chance of making your stay a predominantly positive one rather than a nightmare trip. And I do think Incredible India is to blame a lot for promoting a wrong picture when it would be just as easy to show groups of female travelers who are having a chat with some Indian girls or whatever.

    There is a lot a lot of talk onlien as well as on TV about the sexual harrasments and rapes in India. Many relay their stories about what occured to them and this is a good thing as it will increase the pressure to take measures for things to change.
    Still I hope people see that it is not ALL Indian men who are like this. That it is actually a small percentage that sadly still is a huge number considering India’s population size. I do hope people still will be willing to give India a chance and realize that even if it is not the peaceful spiritual exotic promised land that touristic campaigns depict, it is still a country of warm, friendly, curious and very helpful people.
    At least that is the India I got to know in the year I stayed there. And that is the India I long so badly to return back to.

    1. I agree. India is a huge country and madly overpopulated. The law and order in some states and that includes Varanasi including state and Delhi and Haryana are not so good. I remember some terrible experiences in Delhi from my student days, decades back and I wish we had fussed the to have things better now.
      There are I must add the majority of men who are gentle and kind and helpful. But when you run into the baddies, nobody will help. We are trained to be relativey passive and private when it comes to troubles. I have often wondered how a western woman manges the unwelcome attention and now I read they do it by getting their minds mauled. I am sorry for them and as a sufferer, if of a lesser dimension, I offer my commiserations and regrets,

  4. trivikram

    Sorry that you and the other women you mention have had to go through this. At some level, I think white women are at most risk in India. We have such a long way to go as a populace. In spite of all that happens, I hope and pray that we progress at a faster rate. We cannot and must not lose sight of social development while we keep our eyes peeled open staring at economic progress. Women deserve it.

  5. Bhawani Cheerath

    Absolute governmental apathy, no deterrence, little or no response from the law enforcing agencies and last but not the least the total reliance of most of our elected leaders on goonda elements in the guise of supporters has blurred the line that separates the criminal from the politician.

  6. Arushi

    not to negate or trivialise the experiences of ‘foreign’ women in india at all, but how different is this from what indian women in india have to face?!

  7. R Roy

    Delhi is the most frightening place on earth for women.
    What annoys me.. is when men are clearly harassing women.. they call it mis behaving…
    That shows how Indians both men and women don’t take harassment seriously and tolerate it.
    I blame Indian Grand Mother, Indian Mothers who clearly spoil their sons, let them get away with anything and everything. Instead of punishing their nasty disrespectful , obnoxious bratty impolite badly brought up sons.

    If a 12 year old is groping women… that means that for 12 years the mothers have not been raising their sons.

    A 2 year old misbehaves a grown man who touches a woman or used foul abusive language should be put to years of hard labour in a prison.

    In my personal experience of travelling in India the worst places are Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Punjab.

    Where I have never experienced harassment was West Bengal, Kerala, Sikkim

    Indian men are taking their uncouth behaviour with they travel abroad on vacation.. remember you represent your country when you are travelling

    1. Kumar

      Your comment about 12 year old “boy” groping women should shock all Indians. Recall also 18 or 19 year olds involved in gang rapes in Delhi and Mumbai, it is all over the news abroad. If found guilty of rape or molest, severe Whip lashing or caning punishment should be given to these so-called “juveniles” for violating and injuring others viciously. It will cure them and the sickness of Indian society as well in one go. After the whipping/caning treatment, they can be sent to jail or gallows as decided by the trial outcome. It is part of the punishment for rapists in UAE, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia etc. All women should petition for whipping for “bad boys” and the juvenility and “eve teasing” will be cured very soon.

  8. sarzen

    As a white women living in South Asia I have had similar experiences in both India and Nepal. I often, in typical victim blaming fashion, wish I had acted differently, or stayed inside, or travelled with my (Nepali) husband, dressed more conservatively, etc etc. But with even an iota of reflection it becomes obvious that none of these limiting behaviors will reduce my risk of being a target for sexual harassment. They only serve to reinforce the structural conditions that produce sexual violence. Disciplining women’s behavior only exacerbates the problem. We need to focus on disciplining the perpetrators. When it comes to women’s freedom of movement the conversation cannot only be about telling women not to travel or not to travel alone. It must be about addressing the specific social conditions that foster misogyny. And in the meantime punishing and shaming people that commit sexual violence. I always feel a tinge of jealousy when I hear men (both foreign and Nepali) recount their exciting and fulfilling experiences of solo travel here because those experiences are largely inaccessible to most women (Nepali and foreign)

  9. Pingback: Is India Safe for Women Travelers?

  10. Nisha Biswas

    I being entering in the old brigade of Indian women, find experiences above are no different that an Indian women go through from early girlhood. In India every male has the fundamental right to harass any female. Recently, an activist friend, aged around 65, was narrating how she was groped, harassed and the way she tried to protect herself while participating in a rally against land acquisition in Nandigram.

    1. Rusellviper

      Madam please do not generalize every body with the same brush, I will rather kill my self than hurt women.

  11. Gauri

    “Traditionally, Indian women are not found or even allowed to travel alone especially on long-distance, overnight trains or buses. …This is totally incorrect..nay false! Which era are you talking about?? I have been traveling by myself for as long as I can remember..by train, bus and flight. Please don’t generalise. Indian women aren’t SO cocooned, please!

  12. Santhosh

    I am surprised this got published when the Mumbai rape case should have alerted the editors to the problematic premise of this article. Sexual assault is not the exceptional experience of foreign (white) tourists but a pervasive reality faced by Indian women. There are other complications that tourism and racial difference brings to the picture, but the generalities of this article is just surprising.

  13. vrijendra

    Ah, to be a woman in India and then for a woman to travel alone in India! Tough complex narratives about India and Indian men. The problem is: in India, by and large, sexual harassment of women is not seen as a crime; it is widely seen by men and society as a sport. When I read the story about the 12-year-old boy telling the author: ‘sexy’ means ‘I fuck you’ he was winning a bet with him chums about how he would be brave enough to talk to a white woman and tell her she was ‘sexy’. Did he know he was sexually harassing a woman and that his language was grossly inappropriate? As an Indian men who grew up in Delhi, I can confidently say: sex was not the issue in this case? Bravery was.

    It is these notions of bravery, of bets, of being a man – most of them involving sexual haraasment of women – that lies at the core of how masculine identity is manufactured in India by and large. It starts in the family, among friends in schools, colleges and neighbourhood and nobody stops it and tells these young boys and men: hello, this is not the way to treat a woman/girl. No. everybody just laughs. If we became less tolerant of such behaviour from boys, they would quickly learn to behave better. But we tend to do in such situations what we do in many similar situations: pander to the boys; and discipline the victims: the girls. So, we have a whole range of codes of conduct for girls; all to do with “don’ts”. We do the same with foreign women travellers. What we singularly fail to do again and again is to discipline the perpetrators. We do not even tell them specifically that such behaviour is inappropriate in families, in other social situations. And we almost never confront the man/boy directly. Why? Because, this simple task is not so simple. For this change to happen, we have to confront a whole range of twisted ideas we have about what it means to be a man and a woman.

    Of course we have all kinds of laws to deal with sexual harassment. And of course we need to implement them strictly. But, I speak from Bombay right now, the city police commissioner says – and he has said it before as well – that it is the culture of promiscuity that allows rape to happen and when under attack from women’s groups for his comments, he is busy defending himself. So where does this comment from the top cop of the most liberal of Indian cities come from? It comes from another bogey that our culture is suffused with: the bogey of western culture, which essentially means that western women have ‘loose character’ as far as sexual relations go. We do not see this as the greater sexual choice that modern western women have on account of a a long history of feminist struggle, we see as a timeless essential character of western, white women. They love to have sex with many men and of course they have no family values. These are our larger, urban narratives. We can qualify them in many ways. But the essence remains. Western, white, young women travelling alone confirms this bogey with most Indian men. Plus, if you score with a white women, your ‘male’ status goes up wioth your buddies. In this larger cultural construct, as a result, sometimes, western, white women face greater threats of sexual harassment at elast in urban india.

    Over a period of time, in my interactions with different audiences on issues of gender and sexuality and its many dimensions, I have come to believe that on anything to do with sex, including sexual harassment, while there are no easy solutions, I think, we just need to do the most basic task: to talk about it whenever we can. Not to judge, not to generalise but simply to open the gates. Sex is still one elephant in Indian rooms that nobody wants to talk about and unless there is a real threat of violence, confront the man/men/boys as soon as you they try to harass you. Confront on the spot, shame them a bit. In most case, it works. Because among other things, Often, Indian male ego is also very fragile.

    regards
    vrijendra

  14. Lydia

    @Madhura/Gauri -It is not about lack of confidence or being independent. It is about the safety of Indian women. I have also been travelling alone for the last 7 years. But I should agree with the author that travelling alone is not safe anymore . There are number of times where you end up staying awake the whole journey.
    Laws could help change situations but that might happen after countless unfortunate incidents . Only solution could be the change in the mindset of men .The way they and the media obejctifies women should change. Else , we would remain hopeless and helpless no matter how daring and confident we are as a person.

  15. Kumar

    Vrijendra,

    You have suggested talking more about it and “shaming”. I agree these are necessary but we need to more in the domain of dispensing deterrent justice to reform society.

    The comment by Ray (and similar reference by the author) about young teenage boys should shock anyone. Ray’s mention of a 12 year old “boy” groping women should shock all Indians. Recall also 18 or 19 year olds involved in gang rapes in Delhi and Mumbai, it is all over the news abroad.

    What do I suggest ? A simple cure.

    If found guilty of rape or molest, severe whip lashing or caning punishment should be delivered to these so-called “juveniles”. Verbal shaming is not enough. The punishment for violating and injuring others viciously should match the crime.

    This will cure them and the sickness of Indian society as well in one go. After the whipping/caning treatment, they can be sent to jail or gallows as decided by the trial outcome. It is part of the punishment for rapists in UAE, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia etc.

    All women should petition for whipping for “bad boys” and the juvenility and “eve teasing” will be cured very soon.

  16. Foreign travellers, especially women must be take care of where they stay and who they talk to in India. I friendly conversation can quickly turn into an unpleasant one for a women when talking to Indian guys. Many guys here in India are of the believe that foreign ladies are okay with having sex with random people and that they would be happy to get it on because they like fun! this is just sad.

    Just a few minutes back, I read this post, really like it. These 11 tips can help you avoid unpleasant things and probably understand India a little better.
    http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/women-safety-in-india/
    :)

  17. Pingback: The Security of Women in India | POLI3078/0078 Humanity in Globalization

  18. sonya

    women travelers to India have a viable and safe option: a women’s venture (trailblzr59@hotmail.com) that provides safe and comfortable home stay in Delhi/Gurgaon , assistance of all kinds including airport pick-up and drop-off. It also organizes safe, fascinating, economical journeys into the northern and western parts of India for small groups of women, offering them authentic, informative experiences of a wide variety of Indian flavours: spirituality, culture, history, adventure, festivals, rural life, cuisine, handicrafts, people, business etc.

  19. Pingback: Is India Safe for Women Travelers? » Travel Tales from India

  20. Claire

    I just found this article because I too have just been groped on the breast by a boy on a bike of no more than 12 years old. There were 3 of them on two bikes and obviously see this as ‘fun’. I immediately felt unsafe, I was walking back to my hotel in a very busy area in Paharganj, in baggy pants and a t-shirt. Very sad at the attitudes obviously still being taught to these young boys.

  21. Pingback: Consent before Colour – leave us alone this Holi | The Frangipani Journals

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