The Durban Sari Stroll along the beachfront is in its ninth year. This is a file picture of a previous stroll. Picture: S'bonelo Ngcobo, PSN, INLSA
COLUMN: Fun, stylish, diverse and just a bit eccentric. These are some of the reasons I love Durban - and especially the Durban city centre - and I am pleased that, four years after moving here, I still encounter new examples of how Durban lives up to this.

This Sunday afternoon, the usual mosaic of colour and fashion on the beachfront will be further enhanced by women wearing saris. Not just one or two but potentially 2000 women draped in the rich colours and fabrics of this traditional Indian mode of attire. But these will not only be Indian women but all colours, all sizes and all ages: this will literally be an embodiment of the rainbow nation.

The Durban Sari Stroll is in its ninth year and remains an event unique to Durban. It was devised to promote the use of the sari and to give women who have never worn one the chance to learn how to tie one and to experience the ease of walking around in a sari.

Kamlesh Gounden, one of the organisers, explained to me she always admired how her mother wore a sari on every occasion. She wants to make sure that younger generations do not lose touch with this tradition. “Saris give women confidence to walk around gracefully and elegantly. It can be formal and relaxed, modest and also, if you want, a bit risqué.”

The sari has been the national dress of women in India for 2000 years when spinning cotton was first perfected, but the Durban Sari Stroll does not believe it is only Indian women who can enjoy wearing them.

The co-organiser, Natalie Lange, is a white woman of Jewish heritage who is unashamed to admit she has been collecting and wearing saris since she first went to India with Kamlesh, her friend of 40 years.

She explains: “The sari cloth is six metres long so there is always plenty to go around. It is the original one-size-fits-all garment so any woman, whatever her shape, can look wonderful in a sari.”

I confess that I had tended to associate the sari not just with Indian women but specifically with Hindu women.

I recall that my mother, who was born in India into a Catholic family, never used to wear a sari, having been told as a child that such a garment was “not Christian”. But she wears one now (at least for special occasions) and people have begun to discover that the sari does not necessarily have any religious significance. In fact, in India’s next-door-neighbour Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country, most women wear saris.

And the Missionaries of Charity - the Catholic order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta - adopted a simple white sari with a blue border as their religious habit even though the sisters come from dozens of countries around the world (and do wonderful service in this city in Chatsworth).

We also might tend to associate saris here with dressing up for special occasions, like weddings and parties.

Certainly, saris can be very expensive and further enriched with jewellery, henna and elaborate make-up. But in rural India you will see women in saris working in fields, driving buses, laying bricks and even playing football. The extra material in a sari can be very useful for covering the head against the sun or when nursing a baby.

Different cultures and different religions have varying traditions for how a woman should dress. The sari seems to celebrate a woman’s shape and gives her a chance to show herself publicly at her best, while maintaining appropriate modesty. (It is hard to prove the rumour that the blouse now worn underneath a sari were not original but were introduced as a sop to Victorian colonial sensibilities.)

But there are also religious traditions that feel it is important that a woman’s body is not an object of public admiration. Muslims are well known for quite strict rules about how a woman should dress outside the home and especially when in the company of men who are not close relatives.

The requirement of modesty can range from a loose fitting garment (so that curves are not highlighted), to a covering of the hair and neck (hijab), or in some cases a full covering that includes the face (niqab) or even the whole body (burka). While in modern culture, the Islamic rules have received much attention, other faiths have similar traditions.

Orthodox Jewish women will often wear a wig so that only their husband can see the glory of their natural hair; the Amish Christian sect has strict rules for how girls and women dress at all times. Catholic nuns until quite recently were famous for the veils that they wore, and the fact that underneath their hair was cut short as a sign of self-sacrifice.

There is much discussion about the rights and wrongs of such traditional religious dress. In recent years, some countries have banned from public places garments that cover the face. Politicians - just last week a particularly loud-mouthed British one - make snide comments about Islamic dresses that grabbed headlines but did not help the debate.

It is noticeable that these comments are often voiced by people outside the religious tradition, and usually by men. I think that the views of Muslim women about Islamic dresses are the voices that are most important to hear.

I have always been taken by how the Muslim women I know want to strike a clear balance: they do not feel that women should be compelled to wear Islamic dresses; but they also do not feel that women who wish to should feel inhibited from wearing Islamic dresses.

Honey Alli, of the Islamic Medical Association, always wears a hijab but - as she points out - “the tightness of my headscarf does not define the depth of my spirituality”.

She is happy to accept that all women are on their own spiritual journey and so they can decide for themselves how their dress will reflect that. Saffura Khan from Sanzaf tells me that, though she always wears loose modest garments, she does not always cover her hair.

For her the key is that the woman is not sexualised. But she also recognises the difficulty of a Muslim woman covering her face. “I think that it is important that you can see someone’s facial expression - and I say that as a blind person!”

The irony, she says, is that there are some Muslim businessmen who insist that their wives wear purdah (veil), but who won’t employ someone who covers their face for fear that it will affect business.

The Durban Sari Stroll is a chance for us as a city once again to celebrate our manifold traditions. As women of all races are walking elegantly along in their saris, there will be on the same beachfront women who choose to dress in much less revealing clothes and other women (weather permitting) who choose to be more revealing.

Durban’s reputation is built on its diversity of faiths and cultures but it is ultimately enhanced by the tolerance with which we seek to understand and enjoy traditions that are not our own.

The Durban Sari Stroll starts at the Amphitheatre (in front of the Elangeni Hotel) on North Beach at 1pm this Sunday, August 19.

All women are welcome to join in - bring a sari if you have one; if you do not, come along anyway and you can borrow one for the afternoon. For more information, contact Kamlesh Gounden on 082 852 0852.

The Mercury