Sushma Swaraj breaks through glass ceiling in MEA

Sushma Swaraj breaks through glass ceiling in MEA

Sushma Swaraj has broken the last remnant of the glass ceiling in the Ministry of External Affairs.

The articulate Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heavyweight on Tuesday took over as the external affairs minister of the new government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She is the country’s first woman to be appointed as a full-time Cabinet minister with the external affairs portfolio.

Indira Gandhi too held the portfolio between September 1967 and February 1969 and again between July and October 1984, but it was among the portfolios she retained with her as prime minister.

Swaraj, who was once a practising Supreme Court lawyer, had a busy day on Tuesday, as she had to assist Modi in his meetings with the president and prime ministers of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Mauritius as well as the speaker of Bangladesh Parliament.  She is expected to start her regular work at the South Block here on Wednesday.

Swaraj will head an MEA, which has come a long way since the days when the first woman Indian Foreign Service officer C B Muthamma, who hailed from Kodagu district in Karnataka, had to fight against sexist canons – some written and many more unwritten – in the male bastion of the South Block.

Muthamma had to move the Supreme Court in 1979 after the MEA top brass had denied her elevation to the level of secretary. The matter was settled after the ministry told the court that she had been “empanelled” for the post of secretary. But a bench of the apex court, headed by Justice V R Krishna Iyer, in a landmark judgment, had asked the government “to overhaul all service rules to remove the stain of sex discrimination, without waiting for ad hoc inspiration from writ petitions or gender charity.”

Even till early 1970s, only unmarried women were allowed to join the IFS and they would have to quit after marriage. Surjit Mansingh, one of the eminent IFS officers of yesteryears, had to quit before getting married.

The rule was scrapped later.

But the MEA Swaraj will head is quite different from what it had once been. After Chokila Iyer and Nirupama Rao, the MEA’s diplomatic corps is now led by Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh. The women diplomats not only head many missions of India around the world, but are also at the helm of the many divisions at the MEA headquarters in New Delhi. Arundhati Ghose, Leela Ponappa and Meera Shankar are among the eminent diplomats, who retired at the end of their illustrious careers.

Manimekalai Murugesan, a 1981 batch IFS officer, received the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration, after she – as New Delhi’s envoy to Tripoli – played a key role in evacuating 16,000 Indians from Libya during the uprising against Muammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011.

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