The gang-rape of a young student has drawn attention to the dangers facing women travellers in the country, writes Georgia Arlott.
It was in the second month of my gap year in India that I learnt to get aggressive. It certainly didn't come naturally. Like most happy teenagers, my three friends and I left our all-girls school full of youthful optimism. But from the very first day in India, we found ourselves subjected to wandering hands.
I was the first to discover that a woman sitting in the front seat of a rickshaw will often find a driver looking for the "radio" between her thighs. Hands were slipped underneath our trousers while we watched a fireworks display. Holi, the festival of colour in which people throw paint at each other, was a free-for-all for Indian men intent on daubing the front of our shirts with coloured powders.
For most Western women, sexual assault - casual or otherwise - is a blessed rarity. In India, it is all too common, as the appalling case in Delhi involving the gang-rape and murder of a female student has reminded us. When we visited, around three years ago, we were prepared for the poverty; we had read the guidebooks from cover to cover to learn the scams and tricks that thieves employ to steal cameras and iPods. What we didn't know was that travelling without a male companion in India is considered an invitation for unwanted advances.
Initially, we did not know how to react. Whenever we were placed in uncomfortable situations, we simply felt deeply embarrassed. We would push the offending limbs away with a nervous laugh and make as quick an escape as possible. After a month, however, we learnt that this is not always an adequate solution.
In Tamil Nadu, we decided to go swimming at a popular beach. We knew women were fully clothed in the water, and dutifully presented ourselves, as usual, in T-shirts and full-length trousers. The beach was crowded with young men in swimming trunks soaking up the sun and chatting. A few older Indian women waded in the shallows in saris. We were greeted with the stares that all Westerners come to ignore, and we did just that.
As we swam into open water, we became aware we had been followed in by at least 10 young men. Before we knew what had hit us, hands were everywhere. We screamed, and they darted nimbly away. A friend caught one of the boys and dealt him a sharp smack across the face as we rushed back to the beach. I can honestly say that the experience counts among the most frightening 10 minutes of my life.
In Pondicherry, we encountered an American exchange student from Kentucky. We bonded with her over horror stories of unprovoked remarks and sexual aggression. She was living in Bangalore and introduced us to a group of her male Indian friends. They were middle class, Westernised, on our wavelength, and after a few days with them, we accepted their invitation to travel back with them to Bangalore.
I have since felt very guilty about accepting their hospitality, because despite their invitation to stay, the men were worried sick for us. We stayed at the house of one of our new friends. Each morning, when he went to work, he would simply lock us into his flat until he came home. Initially, we were outraged. He insisted that white women were a curiosity and it was not safe for us to sleep in an unlocked house in the mornings.
His suspicions were confirmed. Every single night that we stayed there, the Indian police would arrive asking for bribes. They claimed that we must be prostitutes, and demanded extortionate amounts in return for guaranteeing that they would not "press charges" against our friends. It didn't matter that everyone knew they were lying, and so every night our friends paid up. We would spend the evenings out in karaoke bars, or American cafes, but when we got home it would be the same story each time.
When they dropped us off at the airport for our flight to Calcutta, our friends offered us this advice: "When a man touches you, do what Indian women do: hit him, hard!" It is advice we followed from then on, as embarrassment gave way to anger. India simply is not safe for unaccompanied women. We were told as much very often by older, educated Indian men. With a disbelieving shake of the head, they offered to pay for taxis to help us cross a city that they would not allow their daughters out alone in.
Occasionally, a male guide or driver would be with us on our city excursions. If one of us got separated and preyed upon, our chaperone would always shout the same things at her tormentor: "Would you do this to your sister? Would you do this to your mother?" The question would be greeted with the same response by the offender: raised hands and a step backwards.
There is a disconnect in India. Women in general are the frequent targets of men who would never dream of letting their own sisters out alone in the same streets. Many men will not have stopped to consider whether it is their actions that mean many women are prisoners in their own homes.
The cause of foreign women is not helped by the mental link established between white females and the pornography freely enjoyed in internet cafes around the country. But, as we have recently seen, Indian women are exposed to some of the most shocking crimes of all.
My male friends in Bangalore have been consistently expressing on Facebook over the past few days their outrage at the treatment of women in India. They bemoan the lack of respect in their society, and vent their anger at government inaction. These men would never dream of touching a woman without her consent, but the reality is that many Indian men dream of doing just that.
The horror story of the poor young woman on a Delhi bus has elicited one reaction among most Indian men: "What if that were my sister? What if that were my wife?" That thought has provoked rioting in the streets, outrage and a determination that things must change. Amid all the politics, it is important to think of the women not only in India but around the world who instantly thought: "What if that were me?" I reasoned that, at any time in India, it very easily could have been.
The Telegraph, London