Do your research
Going to India is just not the same as going to the Caribbean, Greece or even Thailand. It is massive, diverse, traditional, ancient … and it can be an overwhelming travel destination. Knowing as much as you can about the culture can help prepare you. For example, many tourists go to Rajasthan, but that doesn’t mean the desert state is westernized. Far from it—Rajasthan is one of the more traditional states in India. Wearing a tank top and shorts is just not appropriate in Rajasthan and can invite unwanted attention. On the other hand, in certain parts of Mumbai, like Colaba and Bandra, wearing revealing western clothing is much more acceptable.
If you are from a western country like Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Germany or Australia, you cannot come to India and expect that you will freely be able to do all the things you do at home. You have to accept reality: India is a traditional society in the throes of great change. It is very wise to play it safe, as I do, and wear loose, modest clothes; refrain from overly friendly behaviour with unknown men; and be very cautious about moving around at night.
Be confident, not polite
I’ve had many online discussions with women who travel regularly in India about staying safe. Most of them stress that how you carry yourself plays a large part in your experience. If you are confident, you are less likely to attract unwanted attention they say, and I agree. Apparently, rapists look for women they perceive to be easy targets; women who don’t look like they will put up a fight. As a Canadian, I come from a culture of politeness, but sometimes in India—often, in fact—polite doesn’t work. If I feel someone is harassing me for whatever reason, I have become very adept at either becoming very cold and ignoring them, or becoming quickly angry and saying “jaao,” loudly, which means “go” in Hindi.
In India, you have to be careful about how you relate to some men—specifically, less educated men working in service, transportation or hospitality. In other words, if you are overly friendly with an autorickshaw driver, you could inadvertently be giving him the wrong signals. It’s unfortunate that foreign women are sometimes seen as more “available” than Indian women, too—which doesn’t help.
Again, realize that much of India is still a traditional society, and in certain parts of society the genders do not mix. Many of the men in India are just not that sophisticated when it comes to flirting and dating, etc. Obviously, there are lots of educated and well-travelled men in the modern metros, like Delhi and Mumbai, who understand the signals we take for granted in the west. But lots don’t and will take your friendliness as an open invitation for sex. Err on the side of caution.
Use transportation strategies
I have travelled all over India, on overnight trains, in countless autorickshaws and taxis, and sometimes even on the backs of motorcycles. I have never felt unsafe, but I am cautious and I have come up with a couple of strategies, especially for travel at night. For example, when leaving a bar or restaurant, get someone to walk you to an auto or taxi. Or call someone, and loudly tell them the number of the taxi, so the driver can hear. Plan your travel so you don’t arrive in the middle of the night; and try to have someone meet you at the train station or airport. Many hotels and tours offer this service. Always let someone know where you’re going, and stay connected to friends and contacts via social media.
Carrying a phone is essential for both safety and convenience, I believe, as India is a mobile phone obsessed nation. Everything is done via text meesage, including train tickets and manicure appointments. You can buy a cheap phone, or get a SIM card for your regular phone, when you get to India. Prepaid rates are very cheap. Just make sure you have a copy of your passport and Indian Visa, and a passport sized photo with you when you go to the store to get the phone or SIM card.
Wear Indian clothes
Indian clothes are light, comfortable, inexpensive and appropriate to the climate and the need for modesty. I usually wear the three-piece salwar kameez, or Punjabi suit; or a kurtah and trousers when in India. But wearing Indian clothes is a bit controversial among my Indiaphile friends. Some say it just draws more unwanted attention; others say it draws respect and protects you. I am in the second camp. I am a big believer in the “when in Rome” philosophy of travel.
Not only do I wear Indian clothes, but I also wear Indian jewellery, and tell people I am married to an Indian man and that I live in Delhi. The family is the strongest social structure in India. As the wife of an Indian man, I am perceived as Indian, as part of the society—an insider—and even more importantly, as someone whose movements are probably closely tracked, and who will be missed. I feel my gold Indian ring draws a veil of protection around me … it works for me.