TORONTO: In May 2016, I travelled to Delhi to speak at the Women’s Economic Forum, the largest gathering in the world on the topic of women’s empowerment. This would be my second trip to India in a year. Days before I was to leave for India, one thing kept popping up in mind: Should I wear a sari during my presentation?
My writing and speaking assignments have taken me around the globe, and what I have learned is the importance of respecting different cultural traditions. I am particularly fascinated by how women around the world live their lives. A nation’s fashion can give us a glimpse. As for India, the sari is at its heart.
It was on my first trip to India, one year earlier, that I visited Guwahati, Assam, to cover the festival Rongali Bihu. I was in awe of the colourful saris that Indian women wear – everywhere. It was such a dramatic change from our more muted Canadian tones (think “Toronto black”). A highlight of the Rongali festival was a fashion show of absolutely stunning saris by a local Assamese designer, Mehzabin Ershad. Something in me changed at that moment because not only did I want to “try” wearing a sari, I wanted to overhaul my “all black” wardrobe.
Fast-forward to one year later, as I was preparing my speech for the Women’s Economic Forum, and packing for Delhi, I decided that I would wear a sari on stage as a sign of respect. After all, they look exotic and elegant, and the sari covers a women’s figure beautifully, although I also heard they are difficult or cumbersome to wear.
But I was worried it would not be well received by the audience, since I am a foreigner, or I might fall off while on stage – the ultimate wardrobe fail!
Well, I went shopping in Toronto’s Little India and found a sari I liked – and off I went to Delhi.
And so, the time came. At the hotel, minutes before my presentation, I pressed my sari – and then I was confused about what to do next! So I quickly watched a couple of YouTube videos. With growing anxiety and frustration, and having gathered as many safety pins as I could find, I asked a friend to help me pin the fabric into as many places as possible to ensure it would be secured.
Then I stepped onto the stage at the Women’s Economic Forum – the first foreign speaker to wear a sari – and I delivered my presentation about “believing in yourself.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive and my takeaway was this: what seems like a small gesture to you may actually be a big gesture to someone else.
When I returned to Toronto, I replaced many of my “all black” clothes. Now, my closet is filled with pops of red, orange, blue, green and yellow – the colour of Indian saris. And I love wearing my colourful sari once in a while.