The Delhi Gang Rape has provoked widespread outrage, protest — and fear
Following the vicious rape of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012 (called the Delhi Gang Rape by the media), a British newspaper published an article by a woman about her experiences as a foreign woman travelling in India. According to the article, she was constantly stalked and groped and made to feel afraid during her travels in India.
That was her experience, and I certainly honour it. But it’s not mine. I have had a relatively smooth time travelling in India. I have travelled in India for about 17 months in total, over the past seven years, and visited 15 states — most of it solo. I have taken trains, buses, autorickshaws, taxis, elephants and motorcycles (as a passenger). I have been north and south, east and west. I have meditated by the Ganga, swam in the ocean, rode a camel in the desert and much more. In all that time, I have rarely felt unsafe.
Click here to read My top tips for travelling safely in India.
There have been minor incidents, that were unpleasant and intrusive, but not threatening. I was groped while riding through Old Delhi in a cycle rickshaw in 2006. And I had a strange man deliberately give me wrong directions, and then follow me and try and chat me up, in Mumbai, in 2010. As a tall blonde Canadian woman with light skin, I have certainly had my share of stares. But very rarely has it gone beyond that, and I think the media sensationalizing has made it sound worse than it is. (Case in point, this was a question posted on a Yahoo! Answers forum recently: “Is it safe for women to travel in India, or will the Indian men try to rape and murder them as many Indian men seem to like to do?”)
Given the media attention that the Delhi Gang Rape has provoked, you would think India is a haven for perverts and rapists and that it’s unsafe for women to walk down the street. If you are unaware of the Delhi Gang Rape story, a 23-year-old student named Jyoti Singh Pandey got on the wrong bus in Delhi on the night of Dec. 16, 2012, and was brutally raped and assaulted. After a courageous struggle in hospital, she died 13 days later of massive internal injuries.
The horror of this assault, and the young woman’s brave fight for life, gripped the nation and dominated the traditional and social media for many weeks. It was horrible and exciting to be in India during this period. I felt very glum, heavy and dark. It was during this period — the penumbra — that I decided to cut short my trip and go home three months’ early. (Not for this reason, though — read my blog There’s no place like home.)
And yet I also felt encouraged by the media attention given to this case and to the issue of women’s safety in India. The incident provoked widespread protest and opened up dialogue on rape, women’s safety, and the general treatment of women in India.
Billboard in Delhi: She is dead. Wake up India. Stop sexual terrorism.
To be in India — and especially in Delhi — at this time was a once in a lifetime experience: I sensed that a societal paradigm shift is underway. The genie was let out of the bottle, and India will never be the same.
Everywhere I went in Delhi, people were talking about the case, and the issue. One day, I went to a luncheon at a private club in South Delhi (where all the women are well-to-do and over 40) expecting a cultural program. The organizers announced the program was cancelled and, instead, we lit candles in honour of Jyoti, the rape victim. At my table, the conversation was dominated by the topic, and how women should be able to feel safer in India.
The silver lining to this terrible story is that it shone a light on rampant sexism in India — a sexism that often makes raped women feel they are the ones who are bringing shame on their families. And it has also opened up a debate about the role of women, and their safety, in Indian society.
All of this is ultimately good, I hope. I was in India during this period; in Delhi when her father made her name public. I was encouraged by the protests and other signs that women are fighting back; and encouraged to see politicians, police and lawmakers realizing they have to take measures to make India safe for money — such as more severe punishment for rapists.
No one wants to see women treated with equality and respect more than me. And India has a long way to go. But in my experience, India is not as barbaric or as unsafe as the media makes it sound — certainly not for foreign women travellers. And the usual tone of judgement, condescension and sometimes even racism is often found in western media reports about this case and situation.
And as one of the commenters on my Facebook page said, “What I do find interesting in these debates, is how we have in the west traditionally seen our “norms” to be the benchmark for the world. I find that really quite silly. Our norms are just as clumsy and debase women in different ways, it’s a fruitless occupation trying to instill our norms on countries whose people occupy a different timeline.”
See the Breathedreamgo Facebook page for a lengthy debate by numerous women travellers in India, many of whom agree with me: if you take certain precautions, manage your expectations, and feel confident, you should be able to avoid most unwanted attention. One commenter wrote: “The problem that I see, just based on the story, was that the young women expected that India would be like their country — going to bars at night, climbing into the front of the rickshaw, swimming. There are many countries that if you want to travel in them, you follow their norms. I have been to India and travelled solo with none of these experiences however, I too, covered by body with loose clothing. It is a great country but like any other, you need to do your research before you go.”
Naturally, in an ideal world, all men would treat all women with respect and we wouldn’t need to utilize safety strategies, but given the reality of life — in India and just about every where else — here are My top tips for travelling safely in India.
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