Sari Sisters: Finding Feminism in South India

11.26.2019 Arts & Culture
Iona Brannon
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From the very first day, her eyes glimmered like those of a mother who couldn’t wait for her child to open a carefully-chosen present. Debika Sen, president of A Classic Tours Collection, had designed a female-only trip to blend cultural education and luxury travel, highlighting inspirational Indian women along the way. It was to be a trip of self-discovery and female empowerment. 

At first, I was puzzled; my only points of reference for India were movies like Slumdog Millionaire and The Hundred-Foot Journey. I had also heard rumors of arranged marriages and honor killings, practices that painted the women of India in a bleak light. So where was the female empowerment? In the details, I would soon find out. 

My first glimpse of female empowerment was in Debika herself. In the early hours of the morning, you could find her leaning over an extra-hot cup of Indian filter coffee, caught up in the retelling of one of her travel tales. If you wandered by the hotel bar at night, she’d still be in that passionate state, sharing stories over a glass of wine. Bold, beautiful, and determined, Debika would show us a different side of her India. 

We were in good hands, but still… I was concerned. I was traveling with a group of women opposite from me in nearly every regard; our upbringing, our social class, our ethnic culture, and even our age — most of them were decades older. I wasn’t sure of the kind of conflicts that would arise after two weeks of traveling together in close quarters. 

One love we all shared quickly became evident: shopping. We’d just barely landed in Chennai, one of India’s largest cities by population, when we were taken sari shopping. The sari is the traditional garment of Indian women, essential for any Indian closet. It wraps around the body, draping delicately over the shoulder and onto the arm. 

When we arrived at the sari shop, it held traces of myrrh from the incense that had been lit. The smell was calming, but as we stepped inside, the place became a madhouse. The jetlag fell off as each of us pulled out fabric after fabric. Yards of brilliantly-colored cloth lined the walls and spilled onto the counters. 

We twirled cotton, linen, and silk this way and that, watching the light catch the golden accents as we gravitated toward different patterns, motifs, and color combos. It was evident how expressive saris are as a fashion statement.

Saris are a big part of any celebration in India. When couples get married, when children have birthday parties, when holidays come up, everyone gets a new sari. As Nirmala, our tour guide, stated matter-of-factly, “Every holiday is just an excuse to buy a sari.” 

The appeal was clear. We couldn’t wait for our sari blouses to be made.

When they were finally delivered, and we pulled the tight fabric across our chests, we realized there were little peaks built into the chest area. Some of us filled them up, and others left them gaping. We almost burst the seams laughing.

Nirmala helped us into our saris. Her story slowly unfolded as she carefully pleated the fabric of our skirts. Her desire to be a guide had almost jeopardized her arranged marriage. Nobody will marry you, she was told.  

Nevertheless, she persisted. When times were tough and she needed more clients, she learned German so she could lead German visitors. When Debika requested a female guide, here she was, 35 years into her career.  

Rumor has it that the older generations can keep their saris intact without safety pins. Not us. We were safety-pinned for good measure. Cocooned in our saris, we felt like royalty — royalty with peaking breasts hidden behind vibrant cloth.

Traveling through the cities down the east coast of the Indian Peninsula by the Bay of Bengal, we chatted with couples from arranged marriages. Many of our best conversations happened in the warm, wet heat, against the backdrop of magnificent granite carvings and in the presence of jasmine fragrance. Over and over again, they tried to explain it to us. In India, marriage wasn’t just about the two individuals. It was a marriage of two families. Interracial and interreligious marriages happened, but they weren’t typically encouraged. 

The more we saw how integral family life was in India, the more we understood why arranged marriages are so common. Many families live joint-family style, with three or four generations under the same roof. 

The culture emphasizes shared values and traditions — more than passion and attraction — to create a stable environment of family peace.

“What about honor killings, when women bring shame to the family?” one of us ventured to ask. 

Honor killings? Those don’t happen anymore, they told us. Not unless you go into the very remote villages in the corners of the country. 

Single mothers aren’t common in India either, but one incredible woman we met through our tour shared her story with us. She had an unhappy arranged marriage, and her husband was oppressive. So she left. She raised two sons alone, and after they grew up, she started an after-school program to teach children on the streets. She didn’t just want to teach them English, she explained. She wanted to teach them how to think critically and speak up for themselves, especially the young girls. 

Her story reflects the fortitude we found in the many Indian women we encountered. Quiet at first, she had a deep well of strength within her, challenging the social norms in pursuit of a better future for herself and for those in her community. 

In Chennai, we stayed at the Leela Palace, a hotel chain that had created a female-exclusive wing designed to give solo travelers an added level of comfort. In Chettinad, Debika led us to an elderly businesswoman who revitalized her old home into a thriving guesthouse after her husband passed away. In Kumarakom, a dynamic women’s drum group welcomed us with an ancient dance, moving us to tears with their ferocity and grace as they stomped their feet and pounded their drums. They were exquisite, exuding an invisible power almost necessary to survival.

In Kochi, a city known as a space for multiple religions and cultural backgrounds, we rode auto-rickshaws through the streets. Our driver blasted music from his speaker, and we leaned out the window, hollering “One Way Ticket” and waving at the gaping men and cheering children. Our voices were drowned out by the honking of cars and auto-rickshaws, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that we had the words wrong or that the air smelled like diesel and dung. 

What mattered was that we were three different women from three different generations squeezed into a tiny rickshaw, and in that moment, we felt as glamorous as Bollywood stars.

As our time in India came to an end, I looked at the women around me who came from different social classes, generations, and cultural backgrounds. In the moments between sightseeing, during dinner, after dessert, and in the back of the bus, we gave each other a glimpse into the who and the why of our inner selves. I thought of our guide’s struggle to claim her space as a female in a male-dominated space, the guesthouse matriarch and the single mother who let us into her story. I thought of those powerful female drummers, the complex marriage of families, and even our Debika, who was told that nobody would sign up for a female-focused tour. This, I realized, was female empowerment. 

It’s not about a grand gesture or one big trip. It’s not about pointing to people in the distance and prescribing the responsibility of social change to them. 

It’s about the little moments, the vulnerable stories. It’s about finding the power in the relationships around us, listening to the women we find ourselves walking beside, creating harmony.

Don’t expect to go on a female empowerment tour and find insight and inspiration at a distance. Step a little closer, and you’ll hear the heartbeat of the country in the woman; pause for a second and you may catch a glimpse of the female resilience.

Based out of Los Angeles, Iona Brannon is a writer and photojournalist who deeply enjoys hearing the stories of others and drawing out the beauty of the mundane. Her hobbies include sitting in LA traffic and occasionally yelling at other drivers. You can see her work and connect with her at

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