Meet Sana, the Intrepid leader defying gender stereotypes in India

written by Bex Shapiro May 19, 2017
Taj Mahal

It took just one year of working in an office for Sana Jinah to realize it wasn’t what she wanted.

Born and raised in Mumbai, she longed for something more, something that’d take her out of her comfort zone and into the wider world. Something, more specifically, that’d let her travel and meet new people.

The obstacles were numerous. On Skype she recounts them, “Coming from a Muslim family in India the story was ‘look for a job you can do after you get married, one that lets you look after the house and kids’”. Becoming a tour leader for Intrepid, something Sana grew to desperately want, was not your average nine-to-five. It simply wasn’t seen as appropriate for a woman to be away from her family for long periods of time.

Money was another issue. After applying for the role, she was offered an interview in Delhi, a city she couldn’t afford the short flight to. Overnight train was the only option, which meant yet another difficulty: her mother. Worried about safety, Sana’s mum didn’t want her to go alone to a city she’d never visited. It took two weeks of persuading to get (very reluctant) permission to go. “My mum was always the highest authority in my house,” she explains. “Her permission at every level is very important.” Sana’s dad, a doctor, passed away when she was just two years old.

Intrepid local leader, Sana

Eventually she made it to Delhi for the interview, and through to the next round, but the difficulties were far from over. Training was in a far away town called Orchha, and coincided with Ramadan. Attending it meant borrowing money from her mum, as well as confronting her fears. “I’d never even heard of the place,” Sana admits. “My train was about to leave and I started to cry. I didn’t know what I was doing alone or what the environment would be like.” Her mum, present in every part of this story’s narrative, offered reassurance: “Don’t worry, I know you will be very good. Be positive”.

Sana made it through the rigorous training process, despite less experience and fewer contacts than many of her male counterparts. The year was 2013. She had become the only woman that year to get recruited as a tour leader in India.

An immense achievement. And yet, things weren’t as simple as getting to grips with a new job (which she did do, exceptionally). Society was patriarchal, her family’s attitudes traditional. “My cousins looked down on me,” explains Sana. “When I got into tourism, my aunt’s son didn’t talk to me for almost a year.” She was accused of putting the family’s name at risk, of acting disrespectfully, of doing a job that girls just shouldn’t.

India Holi

Celebrating Holi with an Intrepid tour

But this is no sob story. As a 29-year old in India she knows that Indian society expects her to get married and settle down, but she’s focused on her job. That, and exploring the world. She calls me from Thailand where she’s traveling with a friend; we giggle like normal twenty-somethings – gossiping about boys, complaining about parents. I cancel meeting after meeting as our “quick Skype chat” transforms into a several hour-long in-depth analysis of gender in India and the work that needs to be done. (Plenty – the country was rated 130th out of 188 countries in the UN’s Gender Equality Index; Sana’s anecdotes confirm this ranking.)

Sana is just one person. One female leader in one male-dominated society. But India is modernizing, and her story is proof. Growing up, she wasn’t allowed to go to tutorials alone; now she not only travels the country as a tour guide, but inspires and assists those around her. “After my story was shared in The Guardian, my Facebook exploded,” she tells me. “I had so many friends messaging me – they asked what I was doing, said how interesting my job sounded, wanted to know if Intrepid were hiring.” She’s modest about the impact she’s had, but it’s far from insignificant.

I’m still in touch with girls from my old school. Many don’t have any career support – they go from home to school to back home – so I chat to them. I was talking to five students, then some joined, then another 15, then even more. They all asked me, ‘Can we add you on WhatsApp? Can we add you on Facebook?’ I’m not a mastermind but if I can help, then I do help.

Indeed, a recent Facebook status Sana posted, asking for those interested in leading tours to get in touch, really did explode. Inundated with comments and queries, many of which were from women, it’s just a small symbol of the progress being made towards a more equal society (and workplace) in India.

For Intrepid, Sana also symbolizes the company’s aim of gender-balancing its tour guide force. It’s committed to this aim, even in countries where female tour leaders are far from the norm. In India right now, 40 females have applied to work at the company after its latest recruitment drive. The GM there, Pravin, believes Intrepid will soon have enough female leaders to make up 50% of the team.

Sana leading an Intrepid tour group

Sana showing an Intrepid group the Taj Mahal

And in case you’re wondering where Sana’s mother comes into all of this (I did say she’s a constant in the story), be rest assured that Sana still talks to her every single day, even when on the road. I ask Sana what her mum thinks of all her work. “The first year I worked for Intrepid, she was not happy,” Sana admits. “But a year in I found out that I’d been named the second best leader in India. It was the first time a female tour guide in India had won an award. I called from Jaipur to tell her and she was really happy.”

Sana was whisked off to Australia for an awards night at Intrepid’s headquarters. “I was representing Team India,” she says, “It was my first ever trip abroad.” Importantly, it was also the trip that made her mother proud. “I arrived back home to Mumbai and mum was smiling. ‘You did something even your dad never did,’ she said. ‘You’re the first person in the family to make it to a Western country.’”

Sana and her mother

Sana calls her mum’s compliment “a big achievement”. She doesn’t get swept up in going on about her many other achievements, telling me instead that she’s looking forward to learning more and exploring more. And it’s fitting, therefore, that we end our conversation talking not about her, but about India. That’s what she’s more concerned with – showing others the country she’s so passionate about, working to get more females in her industry.

“Take the challenge” she instructs me to tell readers. “It’s beautiful. Do the right thing. Take the challenge.” She’s talking about bringing more tourists to India, but she could have just as easily been talking about gender equality there. After all, the two go hand in hand. Well, they do if Intrepid has anything to do with it.

Want to join Sana on one of her incredible Intrepid tours? Check out our range of small group trips in India.

Image Credits (top to bottom): Pravin Tamang, Lucy Piper, Sana Jinah, Emma Tilley

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