We the women of India

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It is futile to debate the physical and mental strength of women in our country. Those are issues long settled. What we need to discuss is how the abilities of women can be harnessed in a way that their voices begin to matter and they cannot be fobbed off by tokenism

Last Sunday’s ‘We the People’ show on a television news channel dealt with women’s right to full equality in the armed forces, including active combat. Practical difficulties like being confined inside a battle tank or ill treated as PoWs were brushed aside by fiery champions of complete gender equality.

But combat in uniform is not the only way of registering prowess, independence and capability. Much as we decry Ms Mayawati or Ms Mamata Banerjee, perhaps they are the sturdiest examples of women power. Even if the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister inherited the mantle from her mentor Kanshi Ram, she was neither his daughter nor a close family member. She was born in a Dalit family and her father was a clerk. She worked as a schoolteacher in JJ Colony in Delhi and joined full-time politics only at the age of 30. Despite this background she became the Chief Minister of India’s most populous State for the fourth time in 2007. Whatever depths she may have stooped to conquer, neither physical stamina nor questions about her mental agility prevented her from trouncing the most powerful, moneyed and formidable among her opponents.

Another extraordinary example is Ms Banerjee. She started her political career as a virtual nonentity and yet in the 1984 general election she became India’s youngest parliamentarian, defeating the renowned Communist candidate Somnath Chatterjee. Ever since, she has held the South Kolkata seat in five general elections and has recently succeeded in wobbling CPI(M)’s complacency, besides bringing the house of Tata’s to tears. Whatever be her methods, she has displayed how a woman could pull off what no man has yet succeeded in doing — challenging CPI(M)’s iron grip over West Bengal. Significantly, neither Ms Mayawati nor Ms Banerjee has been launched by lineage, stardom or personal wealth — factors which are largely responsible for women’s political success.

That brings us to women professionals. Indra Nooyi was born into an ordinary Tamil family. A convent education, a chemistry degree and an IIM Calcutta MBA gave her the same openings as hundreds of others. While an education at Yale and consulting jobs must have added substance, they were not extraordinary enough to explain her meteoric rise to become the head of Pepsi within seven years. She is listed among Time’s 100 most influential people in the world and Forbes put her down as the third most powerful woman. While immense credit has to go to an environment which rewarded competence, regardless of roots or gender, Ms Nooyi’s own achievements have been nothing short of extraordinary. Unquestionably she must have displayed supreme combative skills in the corporate world of cut-throat players. It is that quality that needs close watch particularly as Ms Nooyi’s brilliant smile gives nothing away.

Let us consider women doctors and women lawyers: As a bureaucrat in the health sector I had the benefit of dealing with the largest cross-section of doctors, super specialists and clinicians for over 15 years. When it came to competence and skills, men and women medicos were regarded as equally competent. But invariably, women, having opted for softer specialities like obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics and dermatology, found themselves overshadowed by high-profile super specialists from cardiology and orthopaedics, who advised Government behind the scenes. Prime ministerial knees and hearts have occupied the best brains and time of specialists at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. At one point an endicrinologist influenced the health policy of India simply because he was treating the then Prime Minister for diabetes.

Women doctors, for opting for certain career options, are automatically relegated to the somewhat routine area of delivering babies or tending to the female reproductive cycle. Critical as these areas are, they shut opportunities to gain in relevance, a prerequisite for being taken seriously.

Let us come to lawyers. One never hears of a woman lawyer being made the Solicitor General of India or taking on prestigious cases dealing with the Constitution or white-collar crime. When Mr AR Antulay, himself a barrister-at-law, set up a high-powered committee as Health Minister, he put together a galaxy of jurists and lawyers featuring 12 legal luminaries. Among them there was only one woman lawyer, more seen than heard.

During hearings in the Supreme Court I had occasion to sit behind the three different Solicitor Generals who defended the Health Ministry at different points of time against private medical colleges. At those hearings the courtrooms were packed to capacity as each matter had important constitutional and federal ramifications. Notably women lawyers were not present. By selecting to work in important but niche areas of the legal profession, women have side-lined themselves from the all important process of having a hand and a say in determining state policy.

It is not the physical or mental strength of women that needs debate. It is how their abilities can be channelled in a way that their voice begins to matter and they cannot be fobbed off by tokenism. Instead of espousing the role of permanent protesters for women’s rights to be taken seriously, women have first to stir themselves and select the most decisive roles within their chosen careers. The battle field is not the only arena to determine female combat worthiness or competence.

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