C.B. Muthamma’s Battle Against a Gendered Foreign Service

The doors of diplomacy were not welcoming of women for a good part of the 20th century. Until 1946, the UK did not allow women into its foreign service. The foreign and commonwealth office was apprehensive about British prestige being endangered abroad as it felt that a foreign government would perceive it as an insult to conduct diplomacy with a woman diplomat.

Some believed: “A clever woman would not be liked, an attractive woman would not be taken seriously.”

Both the UK and the US had rules which stipulated that a female diplomat should resign from service after her marriage.

The situation in India was not too different in the 20th century and this is the story of C.B. Muthamma, the first woman to join the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). She encountered sexism right from the initial interview conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) and had to fight for her promotions and seniority even after putting in years of service.

Muthamma excelled in the UPSC examinations conducted in 1948. During her interview, she was in for a rude shock when the chairman of the UPSC tried to dissuade her from joining the IFS. Muthamma alleged that he later admitted that he had used his authority to ensure that she was awarded low marks in the viva voce. Soon after being inducted into the IFS, she was asked to sign an undertaking that she would resign when she gets married.

In 1979, she petitioned the Supreme Court after she was denied ambassadorship and promotion to grade I of the IFS despite an unblemished record. More importantly, the court’s attention was drawn to two misogynistic service rules of the IFS.

Also read: How Sexism Continues to Plague the FIFA Women’s World Cup

Rule 8(2) of the Indian Foreign Service (Conduct and Discipline) Rules, 1961 stipulated that a woman member of the service had to obtain permission from the government before marrying and the government could ask her to resign if it was satisfied that her “family and domestic commitments” would affect her performance. Rule 18(4) of the Indian Foreign Service (Recruitment, Cadre, Seniority and Promotion) Rules, 1961 stipulated that no married woman had a right to be a member of the IFS.

During the course of the hearing, the government informed the court that it had repealed Rule 18(4). However, the solicitor general defended Rule 8(2) by contending that the rule intended to prevent married women from leaking confidential information and thereby endanger security. This contention exposed how misogynistic the government was. The rule rested on an absurd premise that a married man was unlikely to leak confidential information while a married woman could not be trusted! Also, the rule presumed that it was only a woman who could have “family and domestic commitments” after marriage which could affect her performance.

As the case progressed, the government perhaps felt that the court was not inclined to accept its justification of the rule and hence assured the court that the rule was all set to be deleted and the same would be announced in the official gazette.

Interestingly, after Muthamma challenged the denial of promotion, the government suddenly retracted its assessment that she was not meritorious enough to be appointed as an ambassador. Before the court pronounced its verdict, she was appointed as the ambassador to The Hague and the government even assured the court that her seniority, which was affected by the late promotion, would be restored.

As the government addressed/promised to address, the issues raised in the petition while the case was pending, the court did not have to issue directions to the government. However, Justice Krishna Iyer, who authored the judgment, pointed out that Rule 8(2) and Rule 18(4) were unconstitutional as they violated the principles of equality and non discrimination enshrined in Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. He began the judgement with the following line:

“This writ petition by Miss Muthamma, a senior member of the Indian Foreign Service, bespeaks a story which makes one wonder whether Articles 14 and 16 belong to myth or reality”.

He observed that “masculine hubris” haunted the Ministry of External Affairs and described the rules as misogynous and a hangover of a culture of masculinity which suppressed women. The judgment urged the government to remove “stains of gender discrimination” from all the service rules without waiting for “ad hoc inspirations” from petitions filed in the court.

Muthamma’s story suggests that calling out misogyny in the language of rights and constitutional values can act as a powerful nudge. By publicising the discrimination, she effectively abashed the foreign service and forced it to introspect. Also, her efforts enabled the Supreme Court to condemn misogyny in service rules and this judgement has served as a guiding precedent for courts while deciding cases of gender discrimination.

Rahul Machaiah is a post graduate student of law at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Featured image credit: Wikipedia (Editing: LiveWire)