Last year, in July, I went on a solo trip to the Valley of Flowers in India’s northern state, Uttarakhand. I flew into the state capital Dehradun from Bangalore, Karnataka in South India. It was a sultry morning, and I was heading to Rishikesh in a shared auto rickshaw with five other passengers. There were two young women sharing the ride with me. They were locals returning to their village after a work trip to Bangalore. We got talking. They wanted to know who I was and what I was doing. They were shocked and later concerned, that I was there on my own. A single women travelling in India.
As the three of us got down at Rishikesh bus station one of the girls realised that she had misplaced her bag. In it was her laptop and personal documents. She was horrified. We all concluded that she must have left it at the taxi stand back in Dehradun. I watched the two girls negotiate the fare back to Dehradun with the same rickshaw driver. The girl’s friend was in a hurry to get home so the girl had to do the journey back to Dehradun alone. The friend staying behind took photos of the driver, his vehicle number plate and demanded his phone number.
I remember thinking, that’s a bit much. It isn’t something that I would do. And there, in that fleeting moment of everyday reality for the women of India, I became aware of my privilege.
I first travelled to India in early January 2016. It was a trip to tick off another country from my travel bucket list. In reality, it was the beginning of my love affair with India. I have pretty much remained in India since, travelling, working, and living everyday India, both as a tourist and as a working professional.
I have had a pleasant experience. I was won over by the generosity and kindness of the locals when I was stranded during the demonetisation crises in December 2016. I have felt welcome and safe, both of which have helped me overcome the constant glare and attention that a foreign woman attracts on India’s streets. I can say that nothing terrible has happened to me. So when people ask me, ‘Is India safe?’, and they ask me a lot, my answer reflects all of this. I say, “Well nothing has happened to me, so yeah, it’s safe!” In doing so, I’ve been doing the women of India a major disservice.
As a white, English-speaking woman from the UK, I have a lot of privileges. Simply because of the colour of my skin and my native tongue. These things do carry their own negative stereotypes, but largely I am safe and treated with respect. Many Indian women don’t get that. I am protected from pretty much all of the social ills that have collectively contributed to making India the single most dangerous country in the world for women.
For the most part, I feel able to enjoy India without the constant concern for my safety. This is a luxury lost to many Indian women because the reality is India is unsafe for women and Indian women feel unsafe. Saying it feels like a bitter pill to swallow. It feels like I am betraying a country I have grown to love. But this is a reality that I need to admit and not just for my benefit.
Earlier this year, in February, I was visiting my friend in the beautiful countryside of Wayanad, in the southern state of Kerala. We went on a day trip to the local caves. There were a lot of groups of Indian boys. I felt fine, but my friend didn’t. “I’m glad you can’t understand what they are talking about us,” she said to me. I didn’t ask her to translate but from how she was behaving, I could tell she was very uncomfortable. She told me that she faces this kind of harassment a lot. It’s the reason why she hates coming to places where there will be groups of boys.
Indian women experience India in ways that I don’t. That sounds obvious, but I believe it’s important to state, again and again. For various reasons, I am sheltered from experiencing the full force of the injustices and violations that Indian women are exposed to in all spheres of society.
I haven’t met many Indian women who don’t show concern for my safety when I am alone in India. Being none the wiser, I have often thought, “Come on, it ain’t that bad!” I’m lucky that I’ve been able to think that way. It’s also meant that I’ve been ignorant of the experiences of many, many Indian women. I do not see the reality from the same lens as they do. That isn’t a reason for me to overlook their experiences, to pretend they don’t exist just because I don’t have to personally deal with them.
In 2017, I was working for a digital media company in Bangalore. It was around that time the tragic news broke out about a British female backpacker who lost her life under inexplicable circumstances in Goa. The internet erupted with anger and hurt. I was asked to write an article about how safe I felt in India. Since I hadn’t personally encountered any danger, I was supposed to show that India can’t be that bad. Instead, I wrote a piece listing practical steps for travellers to take to feel safe when travelling in India. It didn’t feel right for me to downplay a tragedy like that.
I’m not saying that foreign women have no reason not to feel safe in India. That’s not the truth at all. I believe there are two important, yet separate considerations — whether India is safe for Indian women and whether India is safe for foreign women travellers. The two shouldn’t be confused.
It’s important to understand who we are talking about when we talk about Indian women. There are those with a voice, a platform and good support systems. Then there’s an invisible majority that possibly can’t talk about these things, and even if they do they are unlikely to be listened to. The voices that dominate are usually the ones that are accepted as the truth. They are important too, but they aren’t necessarily representative of India as a whole. If these disparities aren’t addressed, if we don’t start evaluating real issues using the voices of those most affected, then we are failing them.
For those of us with rights and voices that can be heard, I believe we qualify as leaders. We must get behind those who are least visible, most vulnerable and most at risk of being left behind. If we don’t learn to prioritise those most marginalised, the gap that exists between us will keep on increasing. The world has made a collective vow to leave no-one behind. It’s important that we each try to honour these words and honour those people that this commitment has promised to reach.
Deepa Narayan, social scientist and author of Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women, says it best, ‘Individual change is good but we need a collective change in order to change cultural and social systems. For this, we need to go beyond talking about human rights and understand power.’
I believe that foreigners visiting India have a responsibility to stop telling the world that India is a safe place. That’s what I am going to do from now on. Does that mean I will not travel to India or advise my friends not to? Absolutely not. It’s this Indian sojourn, of living and experiencing the reality of India that has helped my understanding of the global reality for women. It has helped me reflect on women’s rights, gender equality and freedom much deeper and demanded that I reflect on my personal role in it.