New Delhi: When retired diplomat and author Arundhati Ghose wanted to join the Indian Foreign Service in the early 1960s, she faced the same question in two separate interviews – How would she cope with her career post-marriage?
Years after she joined the foreign service, a circular by the then Foreign Secretary to all women in IFS warned them that “in view of a sizable number of officers having married other Foreign Service Officers, the Administration was no longer able to accommodate requests for adjacent postings and that a serious view would be taken of any such request of the women officers for such postings,” recalls Ghose.
Ghosh says this in an article in the latest issue of the magazine “The Equator Line.” “I was particularly offended as the circular was sent to single women officers, like me, too,” she says adding the circular was, however, withdrawn following protests. Ghose speaks about an “outrageous” rule which required a woman IFS officer who had to take prior permission to marry and a “qualified permission” was usually given “with the proviso that the government was free to terminate her services if her private life starts to affect her work.”
These are some of the instances Ghose recalls from her life as a distinguished Indian career diplomat to drive home the prejudices against women that run deep-rooted in society. Another instance cited by Ghose came during her first Ambassadorial posting in South Korea. “I found (in Seoul) that it was the custom for visiting delegations to be officially entertained by our hosts, even the Foreign Office, with a dinner at a ‘kisaeng’ house, where nubile young girls were on hand to ‘look after the comforts’ of the men.”
However, says Ghose, during her posting in South Korea she ensured that the Foreign Office did not include such events in the programme, (as I felt that the young girls were in a sense being exploited by their employers) much to the amusement of diplomatic colleagues and perhaps chagrin of the visitors.” Ghose recalls how once her posting in Tehran, Iran, as Counsellor (Petroleum) was cancelled because a woman “would have faced difficulties in finding access to persons in positions of authority in countries like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States which would have been part of my jurisdiction.”
Ghose, however, makes it clear such prejudices against women is far from being India-centric and is found across all societies in the world. “Diplomacy remained a male-dominated bastion until recently,” she says. “The ‘normal’ was seen to be male, suave, tactful immersed in discussions on matters of state, or more recently, on matters of commerce,…while women played a decorative role, supportive but subordinate …” says Ghose. The stereotype about a woman diplomat, according to Ghose, is that “women liked to gossip about household matters, servants, curtains, menus…would be susceptible to flattery and there untrustworthy of keeping state secrets and unable to comprehend the complexities of international commerce, much less international relations.”
Ghose also found the prejudice against women in the international media during one of the high points of her career when she headed the Indian delegation at the multilateral negotiations on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in Geneva in 1996. The international press covering the negotiations described her as a “small sari-clad woman facing down a six-foot something burly US Ambassador” and “often even mentioned the colour of the sari as though that had any significance,” she recalls. “It was not India’s arguments that were the focus, but the appearance of the Indian Ambassador,” says Ghose.