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C. B. Muthamma – The First Woman Diplomat of India

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Women today are seen in every sector. Professions that were conventionally considered to be ‘men’s jobs’ are now crowded with women. The women of today do not face as much struggle or prejudice in pursuing the career of their dreams as they did two or three decades before. This has been possible because of a few women who have confronted the unjust ways of the patriarchal world and made name for themselves.
One of these powerful ladies was C.B. Muthamma. Muthamma was the first IFS officer of India. She joined foreign services in the first qualifying batch of the service, right after the independence in the year 1949. This was at a time when a woman in diplomacy was a rarity in itself.
For the longest time, women were not considered fit for holding a diplomatic position across the globe. In fact, in 1933 it was stated in a debate in British House of Commons that “The special virtues of women are ill-adapted to the diplomatic life,” the virtues referred being ‘sympathy’ and ‘intuition’. These virtues were considered fatal as a balanced attitude was required in order to preserve diplomatic relations.
A British author Helen McCarthy has remarked in her book, ‘Women of the world’ that, “Even in the 21st century, a woman wielding serious powers in the global arena is an oddity. A phenomenon to be explained rather than taken for granted. Not only is her performance subject to closer scrutiny than her male peers, but it often comes to stand as a test of the ability of all women and to reflect for good or ill, the wisdom of allowing a woman to do a man’s job.”
There was a criterion up until the 1970s that only unmarried women can apply for the IFS services, and they will need to quit their positions whenever they choose to get married. Women were also not promoted to senior positions in the services.
C. B. Muthamma believed that this was clear discrimination. Which is why, when she was not considered for a well-deserved promotion, she filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India against the government of India, seeking justice for herself and all the women who would want to pursue their career in international relations. In a very famous case known as ‘Union of India vs. C. B. Muthamma’, the government changed its policy of not promoting the women before the apex court could give out its judgement for the case. The petition filed by Muthamma was then dismissed with her promotion to Grade 1 of the IFS, with the words by the judges that “We hereby dismiss the petition, but not the problem.”
The landmark case pushed the government to change its rules regarding these discriminating laws. And women now represent 18.5% of the total foreign officers of the country. However, it was this case that set off the trigger for many women to pursue careers in diplomacy while simultaneously leading a normal family life.
C.B. Muthamma has served as an inspiration to all the female diplomats, not only in India but across the world. India lost an exceptional officer of its foreign services when she bid adieu to the world on October 14, 2009.