Although Bollywood might suggest otherwise, India remains a largely conservative society. As such, female travellers should be aware that their behaviour and dress code are under scrutiny, particularly away from the more touristed areas.
- Be prepared to be stared at – this is just something you’ll have to live with so don’t allow it to get the better of you.
- Refrain from returning male stares as this may be considered a sign of interest.
- Avoid unwanted conversations by wearing dark glasses or focusing on books or phone.
- Wearing a wedding ring and saying you're married, and due to meet your husband shortly, is another way to ward off unwanted interest.
- Steer clear of sleeveless tops, shorts, miniskirts (ankle-length skirts are recommended) and anything else that’s skimpy, see-through or tightfitting.
- Draping a dupatta (long scarf) over T-shirts is a good way of staving off unwanted stares – it’s also handy if you visit a shrine that requires your head to be covered.
- Wearing a salwar kameez (traditional tunic and trouser combination) will show your respect for local dress etiquette; it’s also surprisingly cool in the hot weather. A smart alternative is a kurta (long shirt) worn over jeans or trousers.
- Going out in public wearing a choli (sari blouse) or a sari petticoat (which some foreign women mistake for a skirt) is rather like strutting around half-dressed – avoid it.
- Most Indian women wear long shorts and a T-shirt whenever swimming in public view.
Health & Hygiene
Sanitary pads are widely available but tampons are usually restricted to pharmacies in big cities and some tourist towns (even then, the choice may be limited). Carry additional stocks for travel off the beaten track.
- Most cases of sexual harrassment are reported in urban centres of North India and prominent tourist towns, and have involved lewd comments, invasion of privacy and sometimes groping.
- Increased use of smartphones means more and more people taking surreptitious photos of you.
- Exuberant special events such as the Holi festival can be notorious for harrassment.
- Women travelling with a male partner are less likely to be hassled.
- Don't accept any drinks, even bottled water from strangers. Don't drink or eat with local men that you don't know: there have been several cases where tourist guides or hotel employees have allegedly drugged foreign women by offering them a drink or food.
- Keep conversations with unknown men short – getting involved in an inane conversation with someone you barely know can be misinterpreted as a sign of sexual interest.
- Questions and comments such as ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ or ‘You’re very beautiful’ are indicators that the conversation may be taking a dubious tangent.
- Some women wear a wedding ring or announce early on in the conversation that they’re married or engaged (regardless of the reality).
- If you get the feeling that a guy is encroaching on your space, he probably is. A firm request to keep away usually does the trick, especially if your tone is loud and curt enough to draw the attention of passers-by.
- The silent treatment can be very effective.
- Follow local women’s cues and instead of shaking hands say namaste – the traditional, respectful Hindu greeting.
- Avoid wearing expensive-looking jewellery.
- Only go for a massage or other treatments with female therapists.
- Female filmgoers will probably feel more comfortable (and lessen the chances of potential harassment) going to the cinema with a companion.
- At hotels, keep your door locked, as staff (particularly at budget places) can knock and automatically walk in without waiting for your permission.
- Try to arrive in towns before dark. Don’t walk alone at night and avoid wandering alone in isolated areas even during daylight.
Taxis & Public Transport
- Being a woman has some advantages; women are able to queue-jump for buses and trains without consequence and on trains there are special ladies-only carriages. On RSRTC buses there are special ladies' fares.
- Solo women should prearrange an airport pick-up from their hotel if their flight is scheduled to arrive after dark.
- If you get a regular prepaid taxi, make a point of writing down the car registration and driver’s name – in front of the driver – and giving it to one of the airport police.
- Avoid taking taxis alone late at night and never agree to have more than one man (the driver) in the car – ignore claims that this is ‘just my brother’ or ‘for more protection’.
- Solo women have reported less hassle by opting for the more expensive classes on trains, especially for overnight trips.
- If you’re travelling overnight in a two- or three-tier carriage, try to get the uppermost berth, which will give you more privacy (and distance from potential gropers).
- On public transport, don’t hesitate to return any errant limbs, put some item of luggage in between you, be vocal (so as to attract public attention, thus shaming the fellow) or simply find a new spot.
Women & Solo Travellers
There are extra considerations for women and solo travellers when visiting India – from safety (women) to cost (for those travelling alone).