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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career? What were the challenges?

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.

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.

What is your job?

Sana creates tours that show off the treasures of India as well as the problems. She adds her own flavors and experiences to each one. Their tours feel more like a close friend – one who is knowledgeable as well as open and honest – is bringing you to their hometown. She won the award for top tour leader in India and was the first person in her family to travel to a western country when she went to accept it (Her mother was so proud, she cried.)

On her tours she likes to go to lesser known spots. For example, in Agra she takes visitors behind the Taj Mahal to an uncrowded spot on the river to watch the sunrise. She also takes them to lunch at Sheroes, a cafe started by women who were the victims of acid attacks. The victims cook and serve the food and tell stories about how they were isolated and shunned before this endeavor. Sana also happens to have studied animals and plants in school. She will stop groups at national monuments to point out a tree used as natural toothpaste in villages. Or in the market of Old Delhi she will show local vegetables being sold. 

Sana doesn’t shy away from telling her tours about the problems faced by Indian women. At crowded temples and tourist sites she translates what the guards are saying to her. They ask her for more paperwork than they do for the male guides standing next to her. At a crowded train station in Old Delhi she will point out a couple who had just berated her for being a tour guide and not at home with a family. “I never thought that I would be so bold,” she said. “I have become so patient and calm. I was very short-tempered before!”

How have things changed since?

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.

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.

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.”

Can you mention your achievements?

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 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.

Advice to students?

“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.