A world transformed

by Roopinder Singh

“THESE girls are bright, they do well in their exams and what happens after that … they come and meet you a few years down the line, with a baby in their arms. What have they done with their education? Which of your students has done well, professionally? What’s the use of educating them?”

The diatribe came from a petulant youngster and it was flung at his mother, the then Principal, Government College for Women, Patiala. “This is not a professional college; it’s one with focus on liberal arts. It takes time before you effect change in society. When I was a student, there were precious few girls who were educated, be it in Patiala or Lahore, where I studied.”

In 1975, the Principal went on to become the first woman Vice-Chancellor of a university in north India, one of the three in the world at that time. Now, she headed an institution that prepared many professionals. Some of these students were those whose mothers had studied under her. By now, career was firmly on the agenda of these young girls, and many became professionals … things had changed a lot.

A few years later, again in her new assignment as Chairman, the gender-neutral term of Chairperson had yet to gain currency, of the Staff Selection Commission, New Delhi, she saw many young women competing for traditionally male bastions, encouraged by role models like Serla Grewal and Kiran Bedi.

As Mrs Inderjit Kaur Sandhu and I sat together to see the tumultuous scenes in the Rajya Sabha while the women’s Bill was being ‘debated’, we started chatting about women politicians. India had taken a lead over many Western nations in giving franchise to women right from Independence, the struggle for which had thrown up many women leaders like Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asif Ali, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Vijayalakshmi Pandit.

When we are young, the names of women political leaders like Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, were on our fingertips. These ladies fought in a world of men, and left their mark on the polity of their nations. The way the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha is enough indication of how vested interests can try to sabotage progressive moves.

Empowering women has many consequences, some unintended, but that is a result of power. The world that my mother saw has been transformed in her over eight decades of existence. After the debate, she said: “Once you asked me how many of my students became professionals. Their education made them ambitious for their daughters, who did well in various professions. You know what, a number of my students became active in politics, too. Who knows, we will soon see their granddaughters in Parliament.” Mother is always right. But then, you already know that, don’t you?

This article was published as a middle in The Tribune on March 13, 2010.