August 15, 2013 — Following a recent brutal string of sexual attacks on both local women and Western tourists, many are wondering: is India safe for women to visit—or live in?
Women traveling alone in India are typically given a long list of “dos” and “don’ts.” Whether in a large city or a small town, we are told to expect rude comments, lewd looks and gestures, and unwanted touching. We are instructed to avoid public transportation and to rely instead on taxis with call services, especially at night. We are told to carry a cell phone at all times, avoid eye contact, and dress conservatively. Most of all, we are advised to travel with a companion—preferably a man.
As a non-resident Indian (I live and work in New York) who speaks the language and knows the customs, do I follow these rules? Yes, whenever possible. While I do not always travel with a male companion, I do take extra precautions, such as making sure that my driver is waiting at an agreed-upon location before I step outside. I avoid going out alone at night, whether in the North or the South. When I travel for business in India, I am dependent on my driver, hotel staff, and colleagues/clients to help keep me safe.
But as the world learned last year, a woman can take every possible precaution and still be vulnerable to attack. The young woman who was gang-raped and beaten on a public bus in Delhi and subsequently died from her injuries had boarded that bus with a male companion. The problem is not women’s behavior, but the violence inflicted on them by some men.
Today, Mother India celebrates 67 years of freedom. I am proud of my country and thrilled to celebrate its independence. But where is independence for India’s mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters?
All women deserve to live, work, and travel without fear. And India's businesses depend on its ability to protect women. Safety and the perception of safety are the lifeblood of tourism. If it’s unsafe for women to travel to India—and if Indian women are not safe in their own country—it’s not only women who will suffer.
Compared with the same period last year, visits to India by female tourists dropped 35 percent in the first three months of this year. As a local businessman told The New York Times a few months ago, “India’s image is spoiled when incidents like this happen. It’s unfortunate, and it isn’t good for business.”
As India becomes more prominent on the global stage, Independence Day offers Indians a chance to reflect on what we have achieved and how we want our country to be perceived in the wider world.
This year, let’s consider not just our freedom from colonial rule, but also the freedom of our own citizens, particularly our women. Do we want India to be a global cultural center with a thriving economy? Or do we want it to be a country in which half of the world’s population is afraid to travel?
I know what my answer is. What’s yours?