The Pulse | Diplomacy | Society | South Asia

Where Are the Women in Indian Diplomacy?

Have women broken the glass ceiling in Indian diplomacy? The answer is a resounding no.

Where Are the Women in Indian Diplomacy?

President of the UN General Assembly Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit with UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, September 16, 1953.

Credit: Flickr/United Nations Photo

Three decades ago, Cynthia Enloe, the pioneer feminist scholar of international relations, famously asked of her field, “where are the women?” Even today, this question is often met with uncomfortable silences and unsatisfactory answers. One would assume that having broken the barrier of admission to the foreign service way back in 1949, Indian women would have either approached, or be close to shattering, the glass ceiling in the world of diplomacy. This assumption would be mistaken.

The first woman to join the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in 1949 was C.B Muthamma. Prior to her, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was appointed as the first woman ambassador of India to the Soviet Union in 1947. This was followed by her unparalleled diplomatic career as the Indian ambassador to the United States and United Kingdom, her appointment as the first female president of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and multiple stints as the leader of the Indian delegation to the U.N. Pandit, as an Indian diplomat, was a popular international figure. However, she was not the only one.

The years around 1947 witnessed several women politicians taking charge as Indian envoys on the world stage. These included Hansa Mehta (played a key role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), Begum Shareefah Hamid Ali (a founding member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 1947), Lakshmi Menon (member of the alternative Indian delegation to the U.N., Head of U.N. Section on the Status of Women and Children between 1949 and 1950, and Deputy Minister in the Ministry of External Affairs in 1952), and Renuka Ray (Indian Representative, UNGA, 1949). All these women were representing India in different capacities at the newly founded world assembly, so much so that at the inaugural session of the U.N, American newspapers wrote of India’s commitment to women’s representation, given that so many of its voices at that world forum were female.

Thus, it might be surprising the extent to which the role of these women diplomats has been forgotten by history. There are two explanations for this erasure. First, diplomatic history is written by men and about men. While you will find biographies of former male diplomats and stories of their brilliance and relevance in the diplomatic literature, women diplomats are seldom mentioned in mainstream discussions. Second, the Indian foreign service establishment does not provide for an ecosystem conducive for an equal treatment and visibility of its women entrants. This is a problem not peculiar to India, but to the diplomatic institutions of most countries.

However, given that India made a promising beginning with regard to women’s representation, its satisfaction with a certain comfortable inclusion, which celebrates the first few but barely addresses the overall gender inequality in the service, is disappointing. It is this approach of “add and stir” in the study of Indian diplomacy that ought to be changed, as women officers come with their own world visions and ideas for the very conduct of diplomacy. Including their accounts can offer a valuable stream of intellectual thought in Indian foreign policy making that ought not be erased just because we became happy with bare minimum inclusion.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In 1948, after excelling in the civil-service entrance examinations, Muthamma was dissuaded in her interview from joining the IFS. What came as a rude shock to her was just the first of many misogynistic encounters she was to face in the course of her career. There was the notorious marriage bar that was lifted from the service only in 1973. She was also bypassed for promotions despite a stellar service record. All this forced Muthamma to take her employer to the Supreme Court of India in 1979, where Justice Krishna Iyer called out the Ministry of External Affairs on its “masculine hubris”  and misogynistic service rules that amounted to suppression of women officers, thus laying out the beginning of a course correction. Of course, one cannot overlook the fact that it took three decades since independence and judicial intervention at the behest of a rebel officer that brought this conversation to the surface.

Though, has much changed since? I would argue that it hasn’t, and this is where comes the need for the institution of the IFS to work towards the “Big Push.” The error often made while understanding gender bias is the presumption of a single glass ceiling. This simplistic view misses the pernicious sustainability of patriarchy. Each time women manage to break one barrier, another one awaits them. More sophisticated but no less resilient. Its sophistication makes it harder to overcome misogynist oppression, as the gender discrimination now is nuanced, wrapped in subtlety, yet at the same time not so subtle.

Women in any establishment, and the IFS in this case, are no exception to this rule. True, the service rules have been amended but how does one account for the fact that it took half a century for a woman foreign secretary to be appointed? In 2001, Chokila Iyer became the first female foreign secretary of India, an appointment that was stymied in murmurs about how she was a safe choice for the office but not the preferred one. Since then only two more women have occupied the highest office in the service: Nirupama Menon Rao (2009-2011) and Sujatha Singh (2013-2015).

In the history of thirty-three appointees, there are only three women. How does one explain this discrepancy? Today, the strength of the IFS cadre is 815, with 176 women officers, 19 of them serving as heads of Indian missions to various countries. Hence, it raises the question of why women diplomats occupy a disproportionately small number of the highest offices. Some might advance arguments of meritocracy or the rules of service as explanations.

However, it is difficult to not ask how, in the seventy-five years since Indian independence, the foreign service has not found enough meritorious women diplomats to be promoted to the top posts. A look into the government archives tells a different story. There have been several women officers of great merit, but they are seldom celebrated.

In 1947, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru contested the exclusion of women from the foreign service against the will of the then secretary of External Affairs Department, Sir Hugh Weightman. Unfortunately, his advocacy, too, reads as wrapped within a masculine gaze. The prime minister, while advocating for women’s inclusion, added that if the number of women officers was small then that would address the concern of  “suitable” postings  for women as “young girls cannot be sent to out of the way places and remote corners of the world.” However, this is not to say that Nehru did not believe in women’s representation in the service, as he did think that the inclusion of women would be a great gain for the foreign service.

In hindsight, however, his conception of inclusion was limited, as is the present architecture of the institutions of Indian diplomacy. It is this comfortable inclusion that is piecemeal and that does not disrupt the status quo which needs to be questioned by the establishment and those studying it. This therefore makes it imperative that we keep asking, “where are the women?” until the question answers itself.

Khushi Singh Rathore is a Doctoral Candidate in International Politics at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research interests are Gender and Diplomacy, Feminist IR, Diplomatic History & International History.