Is India safe for women tourists?

Attacks on women in India have raised safety concerns and women should not travel alone there, says Angela Long, but they should definitely visit


India’s attitude towards women has been in the world spotlight for months now, since the horrifying bus rape attack on a 23-year-old woman last December which led to her death a fortnight later. Reports of attacks on women tourists have been interspersed with news of how Indian women themselves see their position in society in this billion-strong population, many of them living highly traditional lives.

Not great publicity for a country eager to be seen as modernising: a new technological and business power house.

So can a woman travel safely around India? The answer is yes and no. The Swiss woman who was raped in Madhya Pradesh state, on her way to see the Taj Mahal in Agra with her boyfriend, would tell you a dreadful “no”. And it is wrong, undoubtedly, that any woman should feel her freedom circumscribed purely because of her gender. But wrong and practical are two different things. I’ve just been around India with a woman friend and, although we had a near-perfect holiday, I wouldn’t recommend any woman travel by herself, or even with one other female, unless on a trip like ours.

My pal Cynthia and I had no problems – but our very efficient Indian travel agent and conscientious driver made sure there were no gaps in our itinerary where we would be wandering unescorted around city streets or countryside. If we’d wanted to we could have but after the first couple of forays, when we were pestered to fury by rickshaw drivers and various hawkers, we decided just to stick to the itinerary, which was exhausting enough anyway.

We were in Delhi, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), Varanasi on the Ganges, tiger country at Rathnambhore, Jaipur (“the pink city”), and finally in Goa on the west coast, the former Portuguese colony. All in two weeks, with four days beach-and-pool time in Goa, at the peerless Varca Beach, at the end.

The experiences were fabulous, wonderfully interesting, and somehow, despite the huge crowds everywhere, it works. It seems that there is some invisible cordon of personal integrity, so even if you are in the crowds streaming through the streets of Varanasi to attend the nightly “aarti” (or religious ceremony honouring the river goddess) there is practically no bumping or jostling.

To return to the women in India, one visual memory is of the jewel colours of the sari, much worn everywhere still, and always outside the cities. From a woman riding on the back of a motor bike in outer Rajasthan to a shopper in a modern mall in Delhi, the vivid scarlets, purples and greens of the sari burst forth against the sun-baked Indian palette of pale gold and grey. Other women wear the salwar kameez, the dress, trousers and scarf ensemble which must be the most comfortable and beautiful mode of dress for women anywhere.

You do see women in jeans, mostly in the cities, but they are the exception. Some would say this indicates the repression of the “eves” – as women are called in newspaper headlines, in the wonderful mixture of archaic language and pop slang that characterises Indian English. And some of the “eves” have been energised lately by the unlovely appearance of an inequality that is echoed in the statistic that in rural India, about 800 girl babies are born for every thousand boys (says philosopher Michael Sandel, in a BBC broadcast of a lecture in Jaipur). Certainly, barely a day passed without some ghastly story being reported, apart from the Delhi bus attack.

Luckily we saw no violence. But one relevant thing we did notice was the almost total lack of women in any of the professions we encountered. All our drivers and guides were male (about eight people); all of the employees at the travel agency (again, about eight); nearly all the people who manned [literally] reception desks or served food in hotels; and any restaurants or shops we visited along the way – every single one was staffed by males.

When driving to the railway station in Delhi it was rush hour and the streets were choked with obvious office workers heading for home. My pal noted that, among the scores of men in shirts and trousers, with that post-office weariness apparent, only one or two women could be spotted. When we raised this with our guide, a bright and smart person, he could only offer a vague joke about the women being at home cooking dinner.

Ironically, it is generally acknowledged that the real power in the country is Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born daughter-in-law of the late prime minister, Indira Gandhi. She is the force behind India’s “party of God”, Congress, and pushes the pieces around the national chess board. Perhaps it’s like Ireland – we had two women presidents, there have been women editors of national newspapers and the 14 per cent in the Dáil is at least equal to many of our European partners. But deep down, the men aren’t letting go of power one teeny bit.

To move from the socially serious to the personally important, the great news was the non-appearance of the infamous Delhi belly. I have a tummy of extreme delicacy which can detect a single malevolent bug within 200km and react accordingly. On a trip with the same friend to Vietnam five years ago, things went awry after about day three, so my meals mostly consisted of rice, and when I got adventurous, a cheese plate. This time I was determined not to let such considerations mar the holiday.

Here’s what you do: start taking “real” yoghurts about three weeks before departure. (I also took probiotic capsules, although the doctor at the Tropical Medicine Bureau was rather sceptical as to the benefits).

In the classic phrase, don’t drink the water. Don’t even think of brushing your teeth with it. Sorry, they just do not have the water treatment facilities (it’s like being in Galway). Only drink bottled water, and make sure the top hasn’t been removed and resealed – you can usually tell. I am told this ploy featured in the film Slumdog Millionaire , although I don’t remember that bit. Anyway, stick to bottled water and tell barmen, and so on, that you don’t want ice cubes in your drinks – unless they assure you the ice is made from bottled water, which it is in more upmarket places. Last of all, avoid the street food – which will probably burn your lips and throat to cinders anyway, unless you are a curryophile.

The highlight of our trip? Well, the Taj Mahal was surreally beautiful. And real. Even though you’ve seen it a 100 times, even though everyone around you is queuing up to do their “sad Princess Diana” picture on the bench in the foreground, it is genuinely magical and exquisitely beautiful. But the aarti evening ceremony on the banks of the Ganges, with 10,000 people, some on the shore, some in gently rocking boats in the water, lit up by thousands of candles, was the pinnacle: there are 10,000 believers there every night – every night – of the year.

The lowlight? The hawkers at Fatehpur Sikri, 16th-century capital of the Mughal empire, who spoilt our visit to this magnificent place by their unerring pursuit. Yes, they need the money. I know.

But do beware when the driver or travel agent suggests a visit to an “interesting place where they make carpets/saris/silver jewellery/marble”.

The Indian salesmen are the best in the world and their stories are interesting, their manner courteous, but they do not take no for an answer!

It was only by repeatedly assuring the wonderfully named Professor Butt, our carpet guru in Delhi, that my budget for purchase amounted to zero, that we finally managed to escape.

Goa, the beach finale, was much better than we anticipated. Having heard that it had become a getaway, first for European hippies then for Russians tired of the uncertainty of Cyprus, we were unprepared for exquisite Varca Beach which led off our resort there, the Ramada Caravela.

I have noticed since returning that other tourists writing on TripAdvisor cavilled about the “sterility”, “stray cats and dogs”, “birds’ noise”. I saw one adorable little kitty in the whole huge place. And hey, if you are bothered by the Indian birdies tweeting joyfully in the trees, you need more than a holiday.

When to go
After baking weather in May and June, the monsoon arrives (“On July 15,” one of our tour guides assured us primly). So avoid July, August, even September. November would be good, also February, March. The temperature ranged between low 20 degrees in Delhi to mid 30s in Goa, with almost constant blue skies. But beware of Goa around Christmas, which is peak season, unless you are happy to share the swimming-pool with half of Vladivostok.

You can fill an online form at consular-services/visa-services. The embassy is at 6 Leeson Park, Dublin 6. It takes about two weeks.

Etihad Airways has the most competitive fares. Return to Delhi in March was €556. You could also fly in and out of different cities, but that is more expensive.

Who will organis e
An Anglo-Indian friend recommended Ashoka Holidays, of Jaipur ( and they were hard to fault. Everything went without a hitch. Their price, about €1,400 each for the fortnight, was lower than European or Australian firms. Ask for Vikas!

Look for at least three-star hotels.

Getting about
Indian airports (Delhi, Varanasi, Mumbai, for example) are modern and clean, and internal flights are not expensive. We overnighted on the train from Delhi to Varanasi, which was an experience, let’s say. And yes, you do see buses crowded with people, including on the roof.

Literally! Carry 10 and 20 rupee notes (worth about 15 to 20 cents). Tip two: when getting your shots, ask your medic if you really need Malarone as your anti-malaria treatment as it costs over €100 for three weeks’ supply. My Aussie friend had an alternative which cost about one-fifth of that.

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