I have pondered for quite some time if I should write this article at all. So much has been said about the safety of women in India following the events on 16 December 2012 in Delhi when six men gang-raped a young woman who later died from her horrendous injuries that I feel the term “gang-rape” is used with an awful ease these days. Having spent the past 100 days mostly on my own in places big and small, crowded and deserted, in people’s homes and hotels, on streets, trains and buses, I feel a need to express my view to other female solo travellers who might be concerned about whether India is a safe place to go. Just like millions of people around the world I was shocked by the rape incident. It was unimaginable for me as to what might have led to this horrible act and to the brute force with which it was committed. Public speculations have flown high since then as to how many rapes might occur and go unreported in India. And just by reading the news an image started to form that for women, India might be one of the most dangerous places in the world. But there is a fact that is as sad as it is true: rapes do occur everywhere, not only in India. This is by no means to defend what happened. But collapsing into an unobjective frenzy about this matter neither helps local women nor female travellers from abroad.
Apparently, though, this is what happened, especially after another brutal rape of a Swiss tourist camping in the central Indian countryside. This is when I received worried messages from home. At first I was surprised by the strong concern of my family and friends, but realizing how these incidents were highlighted in the news, it became very clear to me. From the outside it must have felt as if all of India had gone mad. What I would like to say to this is that it feels very different from the inside.
My general impression after 15 weeks spent with strangers is that Indian men are for the most part friendly, embarrassingly helpful and rather shy, in fact. I have stopped counting times in which I had asked for directions and were not only told but taken to my destination, when people would “adopt” me for a short period of time while waiting for a train or make sure to keep some extra-distance so I would not feel uneasy around them. Not to mention the sadness and outrage these crimes have evoked in them who now feel ashamed and discredited as a whole by some individuals.
Yet, there are some facts that should not be left unsaid. Being stared at, for example, is almost inevitable in India – by men and women. Sometimes, entire crowds looked at me intensely, making me feel very awkward at first. But after a while I understood that this is not necessarily a sign of aggression. It is more a matter of cultural difference. While we were told that staring is rude, in India it is a sign of interest and sometimes concern. In my case, it often happened out of mere curiosity or a lack of understanding why a woman would travel alone. I had frequent conversations in which it turned out that people were actually worried that I might not have a family to travel with. The concept of the joint family is still very much alive in India and travelling individually is not very common.
But there were also some all too eager hands which “accidentally” brushed my thigh or upper body on a crowded bus. Especially in the light of the rapes, this inconsiderate behaviour of some men is a mystery to me. Personally, I do not think that these “slippery” fingers range in the same category as rapes, but they are nonetheless an intrusion into one’s privacy, damaging a person’s right to life and physical integrity. Throughout my stay in India I tried to find reasons for this. I don’t think I will ever be able to fully comprehend the perpetrators’ motives. But some underlying mechanisms I find quite revealing: That the Indian culture is still very male-dominated, for example, that women – especially in remote and poorly educated communities – have to take on the role of obedient housewives and are all too often vulnerable to a patriarchal notion of sex or violence or both as a tool of power.
This very notion of harassment as an instrument of male dominance does not only irritate people who were brought up in an environment of female emancipation. What re-occurred in many discussions with male and female Indian citizens is a frequent guess that nowadays it may arise in part from a very potent mix: On the one hand there is an age-old suppression of emotions, let alone sexual desires. Holding hands in public is still considered inappropriate here, just to give a simple example. On the other hand there is an overwhelming influx of mass media from Europe and the US, including porn movies that intentionally depict female characters as either helpless, willing or “not-deserving-better” subjects of male lust. What may be arousing to viewers in the West who are aware it is supposed to be a fantasy, might grow on a very different soil in Indian boys. Their sexual life is often completely undiscovered, forbidden fruit until marriage. So what they learn from these sources is much more likely to be taken seriously and might lead to several misconceptions concerning the respect for women.
Having said this – and I emphasize: not on the basis of scientific studies but sole observations and conversations – I think that a tourism “embargo” as it is being promoted by a number of foreign ministries now is the entirely wrong decision as it is likely to have numerous negative side effects both culturally and economically. Tourism is not only a major source of income in India, it also contributes to a better understanding between the cultures to eradicate misconceptions like these – on a small scale maybe, but on a daily basis, face to face. If all this would stop now, the damage would outsize the benefit by far.
Of course, no traveller should blindly run the risk of becoming a victim either. Rather, women should prepare for the “culture clash” they are most presumably going to face. One useful information to start with might be this: India is not a classical holiday destination. It can at times be challenging, exhausting or even annoying to travel in India especially as a female – only to be stunningly beautiful and heart-warmingly hospitable in the following second. The ability to adjust to these extremely diverse conditions is crucial. This applies to simple things such as wearing non-revealing clothes as well as to being informed about appropriate behaviour as given in this article for example:“Zeit online – Indien ist ein anstrengendes, aber kein gefährliches Reiseland“ (in German).
Mini-skirts, the consumption of alcohol or camping in the wild are by no means an invitation for sexual harassment or worse. But as visitors – especially coming to a culture so different from our own – it is our responsibility to know about its peculiarities rather than ignore them, whether we agree to them or not. If we are willing to plunge into another culture, we have the opportunity to create a greater understanding – for both sides. I strongly believe that if we keep in mind that as travellers we are not only fun-seeking individuals but also walking interfaces between societies, this might broaden our own perception of the other culture as much as it can erase misconceptions concerning our own.
To conclude, there is no easy answer to why these crimes have happened. It would certainly be too short-sighted to solely blame patriarchal society, or mass media, or inappropriate female behaviour. Presumably some completely different and highly subjective reasons have played a part in this, too. We might never know. More importantly, to the question of how women travellers can prepare for their trip to India, there is also no simple “If A then B” equation: “If you don’t wear mini-skirts you’ll be fine.” There will always be criminals in this world who do not play by the rules, even in our immediate neighbourhood. It’s just like on our roads where millions and millions stick to the traffic rules and only one or two act on blind road rage. But this should not stop us from leaving the house.
Knowing that there are certain rules and following them as much as possible, however, decreases the chance for female visitors to evoke unwanted misconceptions and intrusions. Talking to people about these issues also helped me immensely to find common ground. And if someone still mixes up movie fantasies with reality, reminding him loudly and clearly that he is mistaken will often do the trick. In my case, the person on the bus was so ashamed by the sudden attention all around that he left right away. Maybe he will think of this before his hand slips the next time. So the truth probably lies, as so often, in the middle: If we are neither too naïve nor too overcautious we can have an amazing adventure in this very special country that is well worth discovering.
Dorit Behrens (35) is a writer from Berlin, Germany, and has just been in India to do research for her book ‚Gute Reise‘. She visited 20+ organizations and tour operators to find out how travellers can have a good time and also support the places they visit – the environment as well as the communities. The “book in progress” is open to the public – everyone interested can contribute their visions, opinions and experience here: http://www.gute-reise.in