The “Invisible Boundaries” Between Indian Women and Travel
I’m an Indian woman. I’m also a traveler. And although I haven’t traveled as much as I would like to, I have managed to get out and see a bit of the world.
My routine is simple: Work for six months or a year to save money, travel for three or four weeks, then get back to work.
I would love to do more, but the weak currency I earn makes it a bit difficult.
My first international trip was to Israel in 1997 with my family when I was 15. This was followed by a big gap until 2008, when I took a trip to Thailand with friends. And then, after another shorter gap, I made it to the UK. Since then, I’ve begun traveling more regularly to Asia and Europe (although I’ll admit there’s still a lot I want to see). I’ve also traveled frequently in India, both for holidays and for work.
But there are many invisible boundaries that I — and others like me — must cross when we travel alone. Boundaries that Western travelers — particularly western women travelers — don’t think about while they’re on their adventures. Boundaries of society, of culture, and of tradition. Boundaries that somehow still say that women should not travel (and that we definitely should not travel alone).
Here are just some of them.
Get married and then do whatever you want.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Indian women don’t travel alone. We do. But every time we even talk about traveling alone, those big social monsters come out.
Case in point. Earlier in my life, when I wanted to travel, my mom would say one of two things:
“Get married first. Then you can do whatever you want.”
“What will people say if anything happens to you?”
My family’s views have thankfully changed over the years, and they’ve mostly come to accept the fact that I will travel — and travel alone when I want to.
The biggest thing I did to change their minds was to take a break from my job and move to Wales to get my master’s degree. Although I made plenty of friends there, I chose to stay alone and do things my way (just like Frankie said). After that, it was easier for them to let me travel on my own.
Though they still have their concerns, they don’t voice them as much anymore. (Although if I’m Couchsurfing, they’ve mandated that I can only ever stay with women or families — but that’s a precaution I prefer to take myself too.) Nowadays, they leave it to me to decide which trips are safe enough to do alone, and which trips I need to do with a friend. I just need to give them a rough idea of my whereabouts and check in with either them or my siblings once every few days.
Parental fears tend to be one of the first hurdles to overcome while traveling, and in India they tend to be slightly more exaggerated than in other parts of the world. This is likely because many of us consider it safer to travel alone in another country, as opposed to traveling alone in India.
Indian society still has this strange mindset that — no matter our age — women are our parents’ responsibility until we are married. (And we have to live with them too, if we’re in India.)
After that? We’re our husband’s responsibility.
Women as a gender are not meant to travel alone. Or, if we do, it’s not looked upon very kindly. There is a social stigma attached to traveling without family or friends.
Take, for instance, an acquaintance who heard that my sister and I were taking a trip to Spain this summer. You’d expect a normal person to ask about the where’s and what’s of the trip.
But instead she just said, “Now they’ll never get married.”
For a society with a modern outlook, comments like these reek of orthodoxy and tainted beliefs. How is travel related to marriage? And who’s to say that traveling stops a woman from getting married (if she even wants to)?
Seriously, are we in the Stone Age?
If single women travel, they do not travel alone.
Crimes against women in India and Asian countries tend to rank higher than crimes against women in some other parts of the world. Even “harmless” teasing is rampant.
So naturally, Indian women are a bit more careful while traveling. We tend to dress conservatively, not stay out too late, not travel to questionable locations, and generally be a bit more wary.
Certain lecherous men believe that women are objects of sex or servitude. Some Indian cultures still dictate that women serve their husbands, fathers, and sons on hand and foot. Even while eating, women can only eat food after the men have finished. This tradition is still carried out in some modern households as well.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t parts of India or other countries where we can’t travel safely.
And although our modern middle class society encourages women travelers to travel in groups for their safety, that doesn’t mean we can’t travel alone. Yes, traveling in groups can beat having to ask a stranger to watch your bag while you run to the loo at Birmingham Station, or dragging your bags with you to a stinking loo in Khopoli. But there’s adventure in that too (albeit of a different kind).
Single women who travel are liberals.
What are these outdated mindsets? If an Indian woman travels alone or ventures out late at night — whether accompanied or not — and faces an incident, it’s because she’s “asking for it”? Really?
Why is it improper for women to travel alone? And why are we called liberals if we choose to travel? We can be moderate, conservative, or liberal.
Does it really matter? Why don’t people focus on the many social problems that need fixing in this country, instead of pulling women down?
The extreme antithesis.
There is also the antithesis: men who haven’t traveled yet.
Take, for example, the case of an ex-colleague at a media agency I worked at. He was in his 40s and married with a wife and kid. One day, after chitchatting about a recent trip to Austria with my sister, he asked me whether I actually travel without my parents or not.
After I told him that I do, he said that I should travel to the nearby hill station of Matheran and write a blog about it so that I could get more “local traffic.”
“Why?” I asked.
Well, his answer — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and thankfully did neither — was that he had never been out of Bombay his entire life, and his wife was pushing him to go on a vacation now that their son was 5 years old. He wanted to travel to Delhi and other places in India, but would like to start with Matheran, since it was closer to home.
I understand. There are a lot of Indian middle class men who have never traveled. But seriously, just because many Indian men haven’t traveled doesn’t mean women shouldn’t either.
Maybe they should join us.
The reality: More Indian women are traveling.
It appears that although Indians are trying to bridge the caste divide in social situations, we still have a wide class divide to deal with — especially when it comes to travel.
Although a lot of Indian women have begun to travel alone, many of us find ourselves to be easy targets — not necessarily of crimes, but of narrow-minded social beliefs. In my experience, most Indian women travelers will confirm that it’s easier to travel alone abroad than it is to travel alone in India.
But considering the shift from 40 or 50 years ago — when Indian women couldn’t travel alone at all — maybe we will actually break these invisible boundaries that still mark us.
And maybe Indian women who travel won’t be judged. Maybe someday we’ll be celebrated.
Abby is the travel chronicler at TheWingedFork where she writes about her quirky and crazy adventures in travel and food. Apart from travel, her favorite things are nice rainy days, the smell of cakes in the oven, playing in the snow, glasses of wine, and dark chocolate.
Are you a woman traveler from India? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!