For starters, there is no one simple answer to this question.
On the other hand, it's definitely a topic that I have been meaning to write about. Given the time and the situation, it seems relevant and absolutely necessary to do so.
The general safety of women travelers has always been a subject worthy of discussion. It's been written about extensively on the web, by women who themselves are traveling, alone or with partners, by other travelers and by anyone who has an opinion or can offer tips.
Some countries have usually been under greater scrutiny as compared to others, due to their history, cultural restraints or common perceptions. India, I believe is one of them. And while I have always wondered if that's fair, recent events have forced me to re-consider and explore this aspect of my thinking a little further.
A few days back I came across an article on Bootsnall titled-Top 10 destinations for Indie Travelers in 2013. The number one destination was India. Yay! I thought. Super. How great is that?
Pleased as I was, I decided to add a comment to the post. I usually have a habit of reading other comments before I write out my own. As I was scrolling past and reading what other people had to say I came across two comments by different readers suggesting that India was definitely not safe for women travelers and hence (while this wasn't suggested outright) it probably wasn't a worthy contender for the list. One of them had cited the example of the recent rape case in Delhi as one basis of this opinion.
I kept reading but these two comments really stood out for me amongst the other 20. To a point that I just couldn't shake them off. As a result, I did not add my own.
I live in the States currently but was in Delhi when the rape incident took place. I witnessed first hand the reports about the brutality, the protests, the social and political reactions and the outrage. It was a horrifying, disgusting act. I knew that there were extensive reports in the international media too. Even at that time I had wondered, albeit in passing, how this incident would affect the perception about India and women's security in the international community, especially amongst travelers.
In my head I knew that it wasn't going to be a rosy picture and part of the reason why those comments affected me so much was because they, in a lot of ways, gave validation to that thought process of mine. It was something I had feared and my fears seemed to be coming true.
Admittedly, there were readers on that list who had contested the opinion of India being unsafe for women by rationalizing that this particular fact is true for pretty much any other country and rejecting a nation on the basis of one incident was unfair. These counter-reactions were heartening.
Except, the real question for me was not so much what other people were thinking but more, what I felt myself.
If someone today asked me whether India is a safe destination for women travelers or not, what would I say? As someone who is from India, born and raised, I feel like I should know. I feel like I should be able to give a clear answer.
And therein lies the dilemma. Because I don't think I have a clear answer.
What I have is advice.
I will never go as far as saying that a woman traveler should not travel to India. Nope, never. What I would say however is that the one that does should be a tad bit more careful, given the times.
Just like any other country, India has its pitfalls. Some parts of the country, certain areas, cities and situations can undeniably be considered unsafe compared to others. The idea is to assess and trust your gut.
If your instinct tells you something is fishy, it probably is.
I grew up in New Delhi and the rape case affected me enough to make me wary of going out at night or talking to people I didn't know. I still did it but I was constantly on my guard. Looking around, being careful, much more than usual.
This, when I am someone who knows the city, knows the language, knows my way around. In comparison, someone in my place who is new, cannot communicate in the common language or gets lost will definitely be in a position where safety can be compromised.
Ask a lot of questions and do your research before hand: where you're going, how long it should take, location of your hotel. Everything.
As a traveler, I believe in the adage that a little trust goes a long way. When one is in a new city without much knowledge of it, one can be in a situation where they have to trust the people around you for answers, directions and help. In such a scenario, be careful not to reveal too much of your details, where you are staying or answering extra questions.
Most importantly, don't be tempted by offers that seem too good to be true.
Going out alone at night, there are cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, where I would be willing to do that. Other ones -- Delhi for example -- not so much. The idea is to know where you are and make a city-sensitive judgement.
Evidently, all of these points above are relevant to traveling anywhere in the world and not just in India. They will keep you safe. As safe as you can be.
The web is abuzz with stories and articles highlighting the issue of whether it's safe for women to travel solo. The consensus, for the most part (mostly by women travelers) is that it's not the actual travel or travel to one particular country that is the problem. It's the mindset and the growing problem of general violence against women in world. I agree.
The only thing that I am willing to admit is that India is guilty of this too. On a bigger scale, violence has manifested itself in sexual crimes and brutality, in the smaller sense it is limited to incorrigible stares and teasing on the road. To that effect, as a solo woman traveler to India, it is important to know what you are getting into. And then deal with it accordingly.
Other than that, you are as safe or unsafe as you are likely to be in your own backyard.