Women in civil service: The price you have to pay

Women in civil service in India are still a small minority. Yet they have achieved so much and broken glass ceilings in their individual journeys

Women in civil service: The price you have to pay

In 1977, the UN General Assembly called on all member states to celebrate a historic journey every year on 8th March by commemorating International Women’s Day. It was a much-delayed recognition of the equality between genders and the contribution of women to society, economic well-being, and to maintaining international peace and security.

We need to reflect on how far we have travelled as women since the first International Women’s Conference was organized in August 1910 in Copenhagen.  At that time, there was no “equal pay for equal work” and women did not have the right to vote or to hold public office.  

Women in civil service in India are still a small minority. Yet they have achieved so much and broken glass ceilings in their individual journeys. I am a historian by discipline and a diplomat by training. Perceptions still condition the well being and status of women in civil service. Why? This calls for deep reflection.  

E.H. Carr in ‘What is History’ had said:
“Facts speak only when the historians call on them to speak……. in a sense, a fact is and cannot be more sacrosanct than a perception”.
The perception internationally is that the position of India’s woman does not do credit to its history, culture, civilization and democratic liberal norms.  Is this true?  Is this fair? How does one change this perception?  Complete victory is only possible when society changes and that change percolates to the lowest levels in rural India.

As India's Ambassador to the Netherlands, posted in a country where women are proud of the rights that they have earned through a struggle that commenced in Europe 100 years ago, I was often asked especially after the ‘Nirbhaya’ case whether as a woman diplomat I ever felt threatened or unsafe in my own country.  I always responded in the negative and explained that it was unfair to stereotype either Indian men or Indian society, that for every act of grievous violence, Indians always pause to grieve, to shed a tear, to reflect and to move towards further change.  

I explained about the new phenomenon when rural India which was mainly agricultural, conservative and under-developed came to urban India which was progressive, socially emancipated and forward looking.  In the clash of these two India’s, institutionalized violence against women started increasing resulting in more complex challenges for professional working women in the pursuit of their careers.

Let me now turn to my own story.  I was born in a middle-class family with, as is common in many Bengali families, a long history of educated and emancipated women. My father was strongly supportive about my ambitions.

When I post-graduated in June ’75, the 1st glass ceiling that I broke was to be accepted as the first women lecturer in the History Department of St. Stephen's College.

Since it was a temporary post and my father had superannuated, I decided to sit for the All India Civil Service exam. The chances of making it were remote. I prepared for three months in between my lectures. About 32,000 candidates sat for the exam with me.  I was sure I would not qualify!  Destiny had however made its plans for me.  I came sixth and there was no looking back.  

It was a challenging journey. One day I was with a large family in familiar surroundings, and then suddenly on the 28th of November 1978, I was on this Air India plane to Paris via Rome with two tin trunks of clothes and books and 20 US dollars in my pocket to face my new life alone in an apartment in Paris, in a world where there were no mobile phones, no computers, no fax machines and no easy form of communications.

The gentleman deputed to pick me up on a Saturday afternoon took me to my new apartment and gave the keys and left. He said he would return on Monday to teach me to navigate the Metro and take me to the embassy. When he shut the door, I had the first panic attack of my life. I had no money, could not speak French and had no idea how to survive till Monday morning. Fortunately, my mother had packed some provisions in my tin trunk and so I surmounted a huge challenge with her unseen help.

 I learnt how to drive in the busy streets of Paris on my own, to park my car like a hamburger between two cars like the French do, to speak French as the French do but exactly like them.  It was a difficult transformation.  But I did it, though sometimes I wasn’t sure I could do it.

What is the situation now in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) of the 21st century?  We have come a long way in changing gender stereotypes.  In the early years, women diplomats were forced to resign if they got married.  We lost two promising women diplomats, including Rama Mehta, the wife of late Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta, due to this bizarre rule that women officers cannot marry. It had to be challenged in the Supreme Court before it was overturned.

Similarly, when I joined the Service in 1976 I was informed that as a single officer I would get half the Foreign Allowance of my male married colleagues.  In those days and the trend continues till today, it was difficult for women to get married and to remain married because of the challenges posed by long separations and refusals of male spouses to travel with their wives leaving their career behind, as women spouses were expected to do.  Therefore this rule targeted women officers.  

I am however grateful to a then unmarried male colleague who challenged this diktat too in court which ruled that it was unconstitutional and violated our fundamental rights! Another discriminatory rule was that in the event of marriage between two IFS officers, the women officers would get half the foreign allowance of her husband.  This rule also took many years to change.

The journey of women in the IFS began with C.B. Muthamma who joined in 1949.  She had to go to court many times, once to get a foreign posting and then to get her legitimate promotion to Secretary level, called Grade I in IFS.  She had documented that the justification given for no foreign posting was that she may have to go to the airport at night on duty!

We have indeed come a long way with three women Foreign Secretaries beginning with Chokila Iyer in 2002, followed later by Nirupama Rao and my batch mate Sujata Singh.  We have had two IFS women Ambassadors to Washington, Mrs. Meera Shanker and Mrs. Nirupama Rao.  Other glass barriers were broken too. We got a woman Spokesperson when Nirupama Rao became JS (XP). Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj became India’s first women Chief of Protocol.

For myself, I was made the first woman Head of Administration and Personnel (JS [AD]) in 1998 which had hitherto been reserved for men, based on the premise that the Indian Foreign Service Board which decided on postings should be the prerogative of our male colleagues!  I subsequently became the first woman to handle relations with Europe as JS (EW), a conservative male bastion which I breached and held on to for 6 and half years. That record is unbeaten till today!

Our woman officers have performed admirably in difficult postings. Women have been posted to the Middle East and to war-torn countries such as Libya, Lebanon and Afghanistan.  Both my colleagues in Libya and Lebanon stayed with the Indian communities under extremely trying conditions of war and bombings and did not desert their posts. Their roles have been acknowledged by the government. Another colleague was Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul under very difficult circumstances.

Today, we have Beno Zephine who at 25 made history when she became India's first 100 per cent visually challenged person to be inducted into the IFS. She had to wait for a year for her appointment, as the government worked out the rules to accommodate her.  She remains upbeat and confident about her future in the Foreign Service.  Indeed I feel proud that all of us women officers worked so hard to make this possible.

There are some barriers still to be broken.  Till today, no woman has been posted as our Permanent Representative in New York.  Only recently have 2 successive woman officers has been sent as our High Commissioner to London etc.  I am confident that these remaining barriers will fall.

Similarly, I am told that my colleagues in the Indian Administration Service (IAS) are seldom given charge of a district. IAS woman officers have never been made Defence or Home or Cabinet Secretary. Why? These challenges must be overcome.

There are lessons that we women need to learn.  We should understand how to promote a professional platform for women as well as how to create a dynamic network for the exchange of knowledge and experience.  This is very important.  Women have no old school ties, as I realized as I clawed my way up to the top.  In our times, job counseling and networking were only for men.  Even in a co-educational institution, women alumni were offered ties!  We could hardly be expected to wear a tie with our saris! The IFS Association till today only has ties!  Networking is what we women need to learn and learn quickly.

In conclusion, let me note that there is no single role model for an empowered woman.  Looking back now, I realize I could have done far better as far as my family life is concerned.  But those were difficult times, growing up in the 60s and joining the IFS in 1976, with no family member has ever been in the Foreign Service to give guidance.  

It is only years later when social values had changed in India too that I become, to my own surprise, a role model for my family, for my relatives, for the children of my friends.  I found it quite amazing and then I realized that it was important to sensitize those who admired my success that behind every successful and empowered woman, there is a story and that story is the price the woman pays for the success.  

We must soldier on. I always refused to be called a brother officer. I joined the service on merit and not on my gender. I am an officer and I should be judged on merit only. I always remind my younger woman colleagues to do the same.

The message from Germaine Greer, one of the founding mothers of the women’s movement in the 70s, is more relevant than ever before.

Germaine Greer noted:
“One may not reach the dawn, save by the path of the night.”  
She added:
“Freedom is fragile and must be protected.  To sacrifice it, even as a temporary measure is to betray it.”

I have never forgotten that message or ever sacrificed my freedom. 

(The writer is a former ambassador. Edited and excerpted from a speech given by author on International Women's Day, March 8)

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