Before I say anything more, I need to clarify that I am not offering advice in this post. I’m just explaining my own experience of travelling alone in India while doing fieldwork, and how my attitudes and level of caution have changed in the last two years. I am writing this because I’ve often been asked about my experiences, and because my time doing fieldwork has coincided with lots of recent media attention to issues of sexual assault and women’s safety in India.
In my holidays from boarding school, I lived in Delhi, a city where verbal and physical sexual harassment is commonplace. My fieldwork, however, was going to be in the south and west of India, reputed to be far safer. Nevertheless, I was nervous about being on my own, and considered all the precautions I would need to take, resulting in the purchase of a can of pepper spray. When I began working, I kept the pepper spray in my pocket and was wary of anyone who approached me. It didn’t help that my first fieldsite was right next to the road, and that passers-by would often yell out to me in a language that I don’t understand, an interaction not exactly conducive to a meaningful exchange. Some situations in that site were actually scary—among the people who passed through were a group of young, possibly drunk, men with some sort of hunting firearm and a guy who asked intrusive questions about my personal life—but once I moved to the next couple of sites, I began to let my guard down. An overwhelming majority of the people who approached me were completely well-meaning and utterly respectful, and I found that I didn’t need to waste energy in being constantly cautious. I then made it a habit to smile at almost everyone I passed, began waving at, talking to, and asking questions of the people who stopped to watch me, and started to feel a much closer association with the places I was in.
Of course, people stared at me—I looked out-of-place everywhere. Being stared at isn’t pleasant, but I realized that being looked at is not the same thing as being looked at with malicious intent, being sexualized, or being objectified—that happened too, but only in a small fraction of my interactions. While it may be true that any of the people I met could have assaulted me, I found it more useful to focus on the fact that most would not. This change in attitude is what led me to meet all the wonderful people I talked about previously. A similar attitude is reflected in this lovely article. I will, however, point to this article as well, to remind readers that unlike most Indian women, I had the privilege of choosing safer times and modes of transport whenever necessary.
Relaxing my vigilance has led me, once or twice, to put myself in situations that I perhaps should have avoided. When I missed a bus scheduled to leave at 9:30 at night, I was told to take an autorickshaw to the next stop. I didn’t know where this stop was, so the bus operator gave directions to the auto driver, in a language I don’t know. Both knew that I was travelling alone. As I sat in the auto, I suddenly realized that if this journey ended in me being raped or murdered, people could readily say that it was completely “my fault.” I considered turning back and purchasing a new bus ticket, but decided to go ahead. It all turned out fine, and the evening ended with watching a cricket match on TV at the bus depot and having a conversation with a bus driver about friendship, but it led me to think about how lax I seemed to have become about my safety. However, I think I’m going to stick with giving people the benefit of the doubt, at least for now—I am far happier when I focus on the positivity of the interactions I am having, and not on the negativity of interactions that might happen. I still carry the pepper spray, but in my backpack and not my pocket.