Women stormed the Indian Foreign Service bastion six decades ago, but it’s only in the last four years that large numbers of them have signed up. Twenty-four of the 84 IFS officers recruited between 2005 and 2008 were women, ie 29% of the intake. In 2008, eight of the 25 IFS officers recruited were women. That’s 32%. Why ever not? India’s female diplomats are striding the world stage with confidence. The inspiration is not hard to find. Chokila Iyer, India’s first foreign secretary; Nirupama Rao, the present incumbent and Arundhati Ghose, India’s permanent representative at UN who vetoed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the conference on Disarmament in 1996. As Ghose says, “With more women in positions of power, younger women are encouraged to join in.”
What’s more, the foreign serviceis no longer seen as a ‘difficult’ job. Veena Sikri, India’s former high commissioner to Bangladesh, recalls how in the ’60s, parents would be reluctant to send their daughters to foreign countries alone. “Besides, the service was out of bounds for married women and if you wished to get married, you had to take permission. Surprisingly, even salaries were unequal as women were paid less than men for the same designation. Thankfully, all that has been done away with.”
Women diplomats were often given ‘soft’ postings. Former diplomat S K Lambah admits that 30 years ago, “women may have been kept in comfortable postings but this hasn’t been so in the last 15-20 years.”
It wasn’t easy to change mindsets. C B Muthamma, India’s first woman diplomat in 1949, had a major hand in forcing the government to change its policy of gender discrimination. Today, more women are in the service than ever before and they appear open to the idea of travelling and exploring new places, making the IFS an attractive career option, says Sikri.
Ghose, who also served in Egypt and Korea, recalls, “The bias was never overt. But men had difficulty in accepting us women as equals. We were often seen as incompetent. Today, there are fewer hang-ups and merit counts in a big way.”
But former diplomat G Parthsarthy insists the IFS did not suffer a gender bias. It all depends on how one shapes one’s career, he says. “Women have always been sent on important postings and did very well. If today we see Nirupama and Meera Shankar (the first Indian woman envoy to the US) in prominent positions, it’s because they are extremely bright and deserve what they have got.”
Many believe that young female probationers now prefer to join the IFS because it’s the only bit of the bureaucracy that allows them to experience the world first-hand and teaches them to adapt.
Today, women are being posted to countries that were out of bounds for them till 30 years ago — Qatar, Lebanon or even the US. Earlier this year, Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa became India’s first woman ambassador to Qatar.
Many more are in positions of power around the world — Sujatha Singh in Australia; Nengcha Lhouvum, till recently in Lebanon and now headed for Serbia; Chitra Narayanan in Switzerland; Manimekalai Murugesan in Libya…
But Sikri says there’s no reason for complacency and more needs to be done. The system should become more transparent and accountable, she says. Soft diplomacy?
Meenakshi Kumar, TNN 29 August 2009, 1