The topic for our panel this afternoon is “Traditional Roles and Glass Ceilings”. The focus is of course on gender, a concept we use in daily speech, in the grammar of daily life: men, women, each holding up their section of the sky. In India, we have less women than men, which could get one started on a wholly different story, but we refer to the country, as Mother India, in the feminine: as our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru said long ago, he saw India’s soul as feminine. Let me quote his exact words: “India has always seemed to me to have broadly more the feminine qualities than the masculine. Of course, the masculine qualities are there and have played an important part in her history. Nevertheless, the feminine qualities seem to me to predominate. Essentially, she is gentle and peaceful even though on occasions she may indulge in brutal and callous behavior. That is why I think that Indian women, from whatever part of the country .. represent the essence of India, more perhaps than the men.”
It has been said that for democracy to thrive without women is impossible, that it would be imperfect and incomplete without women. Those were Madeleine Albright’s words. She also famously said that women’s issues are the hardest issues. There is no need for us to attribute softness to them, therefore.
India’s own history celebrates the lives of women who were wonderful exemplars of our nationhood. Glass ceilings were shattered many times over in their cases. Here, at the ICWA, the Asian Relations Conference of 1947 was presided over by Sarojini Naidu, who spoke of freedom, fellowship and equality and announced that “The long night of India is coming to an end.. remember the night of darkness is over”. There is the example of Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the first ever woman in the world to be Ambassador to the Soviet Union, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and the President of the United Nations General Assembly, a combination of robustness of response, daintiness and deftness, with the velocity of the wind, as they described her, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who historian Ramachandra Guha aptly calls the “greatest Indian woman of the twentieth century”. In each of these women, the elements of feminism, nationalism and internationalism combined with such balance and equilibrium that we could hold up each example to the world and say “this was a woman!” The words that the novelist Raja Rao used to describe Kamaladevi, can be applied to each of them: they were “firmly Indian and therefore universal”. Hansa Mehta, one of the Founding Mothers of our Constitution, persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt that Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should read not as “All men are born free and equal” but “All human beings are born free and equal” – expressing disagreement with Mrs. Roosevelt’s assertion that the word ‘men’ was generally accepted to mean all human beings. In the words of Gita Sahgal, by ensuring that the wording of Article I of the Declaration read “All human beings are equal in dignity and rights” and arguing that if the word men was used, it would not be regarded as inclusive but rather taken to exclude women, she became the key figure who ensured gender equality in the document. It was a perspective honed during the freedom struggle when India’s new generation of women spoke of not turning women into imitations of men but insisting on equal status and opportunity and who said, “ We would like to displace the picture so deeply impressed upon the racial imagination, of man striding forward to conquer new worlds, woman following wearily behind with a baby in her arms. The picture which we now envisage is that of man and woman, comrades of the road, going forward together, the child joyously shared by both. Such a reality, we feel, cannot but raise the manhood and womanhood of any nation.” Comrades of the road, man and woman. It is a compelling image. Similarly, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay saw her calling as public service, not public office and as a voice for peace. The inner core of this fascinating woman is revealed also by her world- view. Speaking in the nineteen forties, well before the enunciation of independent India’s foreign policy, she drew attention to the fact that India’s “insular peninsular outline” had “widened into the global, with an increasing awareness that we and the rest of the world are but part of a single sphere, that our destinies are inevitably linked, our paths interlocked.... India is more than a test, it is a symbol. It is the mirror in which the world sees the shape of things to be...It is towards a world which recognizes the right of every nation to determine and rule its own destiny but in a cooperative world order, that the women of India and of the world have to strive for, if humanity is ever to enjoy decency, peace and happiness.."
Mrs. Pandit herself was told that an Ambassador’s job is not for a woman. But this little lady as the Indian press called her could hold the scene in Russia even if Napoleon and Hitler got lost on the steppes”. When she became India’s first woman Ambassador to the United States, she was asked by a woman journalist on arrival: “Tell me, Mrs. Pandit, how does it feel to be World Feminist Number One?”, she said, “I am not a ‘feminist’. As far as I can see, the question of being male or female has nothing to do with the duty of both sexes to take their part in world affairs.”
Which would lead one to infer that diplomacy should ideally speaking, be gender-neutral; that it should not occupy itself with she’s and he’s. It is the art of getting peace to triumph over war and conflict, the consolidation of the middle way, the skilful and quiet negotiation, the mastery of facts and consolidation of knowledge, the alert and observant mind, and adeptness of communication. It should eschew concepts of hierarchy and hegemonism, it should embrace diversity.
As women, equality is what we aspire to, and what we want. We need not be encased by definitions. But when I say diplomacy is meant to be gender-neutral, I still see the need for it to be populated with issues that concern the wellbeing of humankind as a whole, of whom women are an indivisible component. When women are victims of war and social, political and economic upheaval, when they are anchorless migrants cast upon a river of no return, left to fend for their hapless children, when they are exploited in conflict and left agency-less – should we not hear more women’s voices shaping agendas and outcomes so that more sense and sensibility prevails, countries are not summarily wiped off the map in acts of hegemonic hubris and the whirlwind reaped under the perceived Responsibility to Protect? The question I ask, is: can diplomacy organize itself more effectively so that outcomes take into account the interests of these largely silent multitudes that comprise women? Can women acquire agency and make themselves more effectively heard?
One factor that is often remarked upon, is that those women who make it to the top echelons of diplomatic life seem to have no option but to adopt approaches that differ little from their male colleagues. Is diplomacy, then, a straitjacket? Restrictive, offering little scope for the articulation of the female voice? How often is that voice heard across the climate-controlled portals of international affairs? It seems to me that too few women are seen in that world and even those that are there are few and far between, to be celebrated no doubt, but not wrestlers in the amphitheatre. The glass ceiling is not so easily shattered.
It is often argued that strength lies in numbers. And this is especially so if women’s voices are to be heard and so that the content of discussion on important global issues reflects the values and the new content that women bring to the table. But the numbers of women in such discussions are not growing exponentially – they are mostly conspicuous by their absence in panel – or ‘manel’ - discussions and often overlooked when it comes to such participation since the male “experts” are the default choice. The contributions of women are mostly overlooked or sidelined. We are yet to find a way in which we create that ideal blend of yin and yang in the universe of diplomacy. The problem of a not insignificant number of chauvinistic men in the workplace is a global problem.
What do women need most, regardless of what their field of professional choice is? I believe it is voice – that which enables them to articulate their cause, their interests, and their aspirations. And voice needs amplification, the amplification that comes from numbers, from adequate representation. If women constitute fifty percent of the population, it is obvious that their representation in professions, and in leadership positions should be equal to or at least close to equal that of men who are similarly placed. In the Indian Foreign Service, the numbers of women are going up steadily but nowhere even near half of the numbers of male diplomatic officers. Out of a total service strength of IFS officers of 815 today, there are 176 women officers. 19 of these women are presently Heads of Mission – that is, Ambassadors or High Commissioners. The numbers are still small – as a proportion of the overall strength of the Service and as a proportion of senior leadership positions. The third aspect after voice and amplification relates to service conditions. In my own lifetime, I was witness to the long march we women have undertaken from what one legal luminary called the “stain of sex determination” where married women diplomats could not continue to work, where you could not apply to join the Foreign Service if you were married, and where you could scarcely aspire to the top positions of responsibility in the Service. These were all egregious, grossly discriminatory requirements, an apartheid policy practiced against a particular gender. The third barrier was the last to fall and it took a famous case launched in the late 1970’s by C.B. Muthamma, India’s first career women diplomat, where she took the senior leadership of the Ministry of External Affairs to the Supreme Court to protest against their refusal to appoint her to the post of Secretary to the Government of India. It was another matter that the establishment blinked first. They promoted Muthamma to the post of Secretary before the case came up for judgement although while closing the case, the concerned judge – Justice Krishna Iyer - said he was dismissing the petition “but not the problem” – the problem being that relating to sex discrimination in service conditions. Of course, the situation is vastly improved for women in the IFS today, and much is owed to the courage and determination of pioneers like Ambassador Muthamma.
The question, however, still remains whether women bring a crucial, feminine- oriented perspective to the conduct of public policy. When placed in situations where the woman is isolated among a cabinet of males, the question of being solely guided by a womanly perspective does not easily arise. She exercises her judgement as the need of the hour dictates, and perhaps she is at pains to demonstrate that she is no less equal to men in taking muscular, ‘masculine’ decisions. ‘Iron Lady’ is another masculine term for women in power – ‘no less than a man’ is what is implied.
The issue would be different if the numbers of women in public policy decision- making were to substantially increase and if women are no longer in a minority. That becomes the inflection point for greater confidence and assertiveness in speaking out or leaning in, in a manner that is incorporative of concerns about the impact of decisions taken on gender-equity, post-conflict scenarios, violence against women and children, sexual trafficking, conflict and migration, and human displacement. But until the numbers of women increase, the preponderant behaviour will be to conform to prescribed codes and methods that are seen as best practices in decision-making paradigms long-established in a world led by men. And the scenario will not change so easily despite the best intentions to effect change. To cite an example, two decades after the U.N. adopted Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which speaks to the necessity of including women in peace agreements, ninety-five per cent of military peacekeepers are still men, and only 10 percent of police officers and 4 percent of peacekeeping soldiers within UN peacekeeping operations globally are women.
But reverting to diplomacy, the problem may not go away with just increasing numbers. Most top diplomatic positions in the world are male. As a recent study pointed out, crucially, we still have very little knowledge of where women and men are positioned and located in diplomacy. When we compare and look at senior negotiation positions, the number of women is even lower. An often-quoted study from UN Women (2012) reveals that women only constitute 9 percent of all negotiators, 2.5 percent of all chief mediators and 4 percent of signatories. And yet another study has noted, “centrally located male networks may shape recruitment and career development – perhaps senior men are more likely to see, encourage and involve men as junior colleagues, making it easier for junior men than women to feel supported and encouraged to take steps to advance the career. Also, the issue of overt or subtle signaling to women that they are not suitable for diplomacy need to be analyzed further. Such signaling can have various grounds: there may be fear that women cannot network effectively in male dominated environments, fear that women cannot combine a demanding diplomatic career with marriage and parenthood, reluctance to place women in violent contexts, or ideas about women’s inability to control their emotions or keep secrets”[i]. And it is also obvious that Hobbesian values of war and security prevail. It is as if, as one scholar said, Aristotle’s views on women as non-developed males persist[ii]. Diplomacy is still conceptualized as male-ordained, and patriarchy is not extinct.
Nowhere is male patriarchy more in play than in the universe of social media. The trend is to overwhelm any point of view that does not conform to the stipulated common denominator of what constitutes the “truth”. Female opinions are subject to constant mansplaining by twitter handles that are anonymous and ignorant. But social media by way of its expansiveness and universal outreach, requires to be the arena where female views and feminist opinions must be freely propagated and accommodated so that they take root and refuse to be dismissed by trolls or alt-newsmakers. It offers the scope of advocacy and the creation of agency. Advocacy because it promotes the accumulation of view- points and awareness about women’s issues and female participation in policy- making and legislative matters and enriches the debate. Agency because it promotes women’s ownership of issues concerning their welfare and progress, their safety and wellbeing, their health and empowerment and their rights to be agents of peace and security. We, the people must include she, the people. Social media provides that sounding board, that listening platform that increases engagement between civil society activists, who want the empowerment of women, it enables their voices to be heard and to be introduced into the policy debate.
I was struck recently by what an Afghan woman had to say about the future of her country. “We are not responsible for the destruction” she said, “but we should be responsible for the reconstruction.” For us who balance family and career, as working women, it is natural that such concerns should be a matter of instinct. We would look at the drivers of conflict, try to understand them, not in an idealistic way, but beyond neo-realist interpretations of a given situation, building trust and empathy, and incorporating gender-related concerns into a solution. But for this to be realized, women should be enabled to exert influence at the negotiating table, in the decisions that are taken. A recent explanation of a feminist foreign policy included within its definition, political dialogue for conflict resolution, diplomacy and trade, a stress on safety and wellbeing, building empathetic communities of states (a stress on multilateralism), based on trust and transparency, and shared responsibility, inclusion and intersectionality which takes into account the experience of civil society and local communities[iii].
There is a lot of connecting the dots and mapping the terrain that remains to be done. But the journey has begun. This is not about men versus women. Feminists can come from both genders. The important matter is that we recognize and respect gender equality, the right of women to be heard, and to make decisions that affect the peace and security of our homelands, to promote women’s participation in public life and to expand their leadership opportunities. There is no time for mansplaining. Women are meant to excel. Foreign Policy must be inclusivist. Diplomacy cannot be a male-powered concept alone. As the American politician, Ann Richards once said, “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels”.
[i] Karin Aggestam and Ann Towns: The gender turn in diplomacy: a new research agenda (International Feminist Journal of Politics, 2019, Vol. 21, No. 1, 9-28)
[ii] Amit Ranjan : Breaking the Glass Ceiling: A Dilemma in the Making of Foreign Policy in South Asia (Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 22, 2015, pp. 91-105)
[iii] Victoria Scheyer and Marina Kumskova: Feminist Foreign Policy: A Fine Line Between “Adding Women” And Pursuing A Feminist Agenda (Journal of International Affairs, Vol.72, no. 2, Spring-Summer 2019 pp. 57-76)