Devi is the female goddess,
venerated in India by the majority Hindu community as the source of primordial
power, the symbol of piety and purity.
Yet, in a country of such great
tradition and culture, Indian women are in the news globally for all the wrong
reasons: sexual harassment and societal subjugation. In the past decade with
the information boom having touched all corners of the globe, unfiltered news
about India is available to all. It has meant that the focus in the past two
years has been on crimes against women in India rather than on women achievers
This tinge in global focus on
women in India is due to the global expectations from the world’s largest democracy.
The world looks upon India as an emergent power and it is impossible for India
to be a power in this region with half its population lagging behind.
One of India’s most powerful
Prime Ministers was a woman. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ruled with an
iron-fist and led an almost entirely male cabinet for decades, pulling India
out of famines and war, into a Green Revolution that transformed Indian
agriculture. Several years later, her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi would take
over the reins of the oldest political party in the country, lead it to victory
but refuse to become Prime Minister and appointed her loyal colleague Dr
Manmohan Singh instead. India’s current External Affairs Minister is Sushma
Swaraj who is the second woman to occupy that post, the first being Indira
We have many woman leaders in industry too.
Chennai-born Indra Nooyi is the president and
chief executive officer of PepsiCo, the world’s fourth-largest food and
beverage company. Fortune Magazine selected her as the Most Powerful Woman in
Business in 2006. Chanda Kochhar is CEO and MD of ICICI Bank, India’s largest
In sports, Sania Mirza is the
highest ranked female tennis player ever from India, with a career high ranking
31 in singles and 24 in doubles. Mary Kom is a five-time World Amateur Boxing champion
and the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world
championships and an Olympic medal. She has inspired hundreds of girls in the
country to take up competitive sports. Equally inspiring is the young Saina
Nehwal, who is the first
Indian to win a medal in Badminton at the Olympics.
Indian women authors like
Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai have won many international literary
awards and global critical acclaim. Then there are women who work for society,
tirelessly and many times without the limelight. Medha Patkar has worked for
the socially downtrodden who get displaced due to mega development projects,
Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity works ceaselessly among the poor and
marginalized. Ela Bhat founded the Self
Employed Women Association (SEWA) that works for empowering employment among
In the field of entertainment, the list of women achievers is
unending: from the golden melodious voices of Bollywood for decades, Lata
Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, to the popular and acclaimed actresses like
Shabana Azmi, Meena Kumari, Aishwarya Rai and film makers like Mira Nair and
Kalpana Lajmi. Blessed with such talent, Indian films, particularly those made
in Mumbai, have captivated audiences across the globe.
While the list of current women achievers is
impressive, the list of Indian women who stand out in history is equally
stellar. Ancient texts show that women in India in the Vedic period
(ca.1750–500 BCE) had access to education and enjoyed almost equal rights as
men. Razia Sultan, Chand Bibi, Rani Laxmi Bai were heroic figures whose tales
of bravery and courage are narrated even today. Many women leaders played
stellar roles in the freedom movement, and other even ruled as queens in
erstwhile princely states.
The Indian Constitution guarantees equality to all
women and no discrimination by the state but it is an uphill battle in practice
to break through the glass ceiling. In rural India, women constitute nearly 85
percent of the work force but they rarely own land. In urban India, they are
present in offices and construction sites but are paid less than their male
counterparts. With awareness increasing among Indian women about their rights
and responsibilities, they are growing more assertive, ready to take on
challenges and march in step with their male counterparts. In an India on the
march, women will have to be an integral part of the country’s success story.