Introduction: These articles are part of Intercultural dialogues, to celebrate, leverage and chronicle diverse stories, narratives, voices, and cultural identities of inspirational Indian women achievers.
As an Indian-born woman, my life has been enriched by a colorful spectrum and cultural impact of the 9 Indian cities I grew up in, and the 8 international cities I lived in thereafter, giving me an in-depth understanding of overall internal and cross-cultural diversities that are perceived through life’s unique and everchanging emotional and psychological lenses.
With the power of the written word, I hope to address the relevance of a woman in India’s emerging economy, as she prepares to face conflicting issues of social division vs cohesion, and, discrimination vs reconciliation, across cultural divides. With dreams, desires, and circumstances reflective of many women across all corners of our world, these shared stories seek to ignite, inspire, and empower another sister with one aim – creating a virtuous circle to uplift the overall human spirit through the coming decades.
Women in India
A wise man of great intellect and power once said, “The best measure of a nation’s progress is the way it treats its women.”
From times immemorial, legends and cultural metaphors of India, have allowed the subtle expressions of patriarchy’s regulated sexuality, reproduction, and social productions, to become part of an accepted social fabric. The role of women has been emphasized as faithful wives and devout mothers, who are trained since childhood to sacrifice their aspirations and individualism, and never challenge discrimination, subordination, exploitation, and subjugation.
Till the 13th century, India was a country that shunned widows and allowed the Hindu practice of “Sati” (burning to death of a recent widow; self-immolation or by force or coercion, and deemed as an act of peerless piety that would purge her of all her sins, release her from the cycle of birth and rebirth and ensure salvation for her dead husband and the seven generations that followed her), till it was abolished in1827, during British Raj, by the Governor-General of India, Lord Bentinck, claiming it had no sound theological basis.
In this age of ascending feminism and focus on equality and human rights, the contemporary modern Indian woman is switching between multiple roles successfully, but still struggles to find a balancing act between being respected, feared, insulted, sidelined, and is constantly being defined and re-defined by contradictions and comparisons to a “traditional woman”. She forges ahead irrespective…leaving behind her legacy of fearlessness.
Meet one such woman, Jija Madhavan Harisingh, first lady IPS officer in South India, who is an epitome of an “Officer and a Gentle Woman”, uniquely striking a “rare” balance of logic, calm and collected, on one hand; and creative, intuitive, sensitive, flexible, adaptable, with an adventurous and relentless “never say never” attitude, on the other. Her mantra: “Never stop exploring, never settle, as a curious mind knows there is more to life than existing, so keep expecting bigger things from life”!
A Thought Leader, Visionary, Catalyst for change, Mentor for Women and Youth, Philanthropist, Humanitarian, Artist of repute and an art connoisseur, Spiritual Seeker, a multifaceted icon with strength & simplicity, Singh was the first woman to join the premier Indian Police Service ( IPS), Karnataka, in 1975, and who at the young age of 24, after three years of tough physical and professional training, was posted to the conservative state of Karnataka (post of Assistant Superintendent of Police – Research), where a strong patriarchal mindset was to confront her at every step. But the warrior that she was …her brilliant career spanned three and half decades, earning her the highest rank of Director General of Police (DGP). She retired in 2011.
Her early life was influenced by her father, T.K. Madhavan, and later, she blossomed under her mentor Madhukar Rao (with whom she shared her love for Shakespeare, poets of the romantic era, like Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, and modern poets like GM Hopkins and TS Eliot), and learnt live model studies under the well-known artist M.V. Devan at Kalapeetom, (helping her establish as an artist of refute in traditional figurative gold paintings of Mysore and Tanjore, abstracts, painting color fields in oil and acrylic).
She finished her graduation and post-graduation in English literature from University College, a Journalism course at Press Club, a short working stint at the Indian space Research organization, followed by a brief English teaching phase at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. Her enthusiasm, eagerness, and insatiable curiosity about life enabled her to balance a challenging career, and competent motherhood, and she went on to gain another MA Degree in Sociology from Mysore University, followed by a Ph.D. in Development Studies on the topic of her special interest, women’s empowerment. Her research study with title ‘Gender status in Karnataka police, a study of entry-level cadres in women police’.
In just four years, Jija rose to be a force to be reckoned with and was handed tough assignments like Asst.
Superintendent of Police of a strife-ridden subdivision of Bangalore and Madhugiri. Her tough and meticulous handling of confronting unruly crowds and hardened criminals in this area was acknowledged by higher authorities, and she was soon picked to head a district as the Superintendent of Police, a district with 30-plus police stations and 1000 personnel, becoming the first woman ever to be allowed such an onerous responsibility in the country. Her other successful career stints were Airports Authority of India, Nuclear Power Corporation Limited, National Textiles Corporation, Karnataka State Police Housing Corporation and Mysore Minerals Ltd., and Jungle Lodges & Resorts Ltd (Corporates under the Government of Karnataka).
Inspired by Nehru’s words ‘I am not interested in excuses; I am interested in work done”, Jija’s positive and diligent mindset, and spirited quest to perform against all odds, helped her establish herself as the only woman DGP (Director General of Police) in the state, in spite of the challenges of gender power dynamics, and the Indian patriarchal/conventional style of bureaucracy (“I convert even the dullest assignment into a “glorious lake of lotuses”, she says).
Never allowing a dull moment in creativity, her solo exhibitions in India and abroad, the establishment of a Trust called “Art Mantram” (that has organized over 500 events, online Art souks, camps, and workshops that address burning social issues, promotes patronage, awareness, and accessibility of Art), won her the “Indira Priyadarshini National Award”, for Contribution to Art.
Today, she has chosen to retire in Bangalore (also spelled Bengaluru), the capital city, (since 1830), of Karnataka state, southern India, which lies 3,113 feet (949 meters) above sea level, atop an east-west ridge in the Karnataka Plateau in the southeastern part of the state. According to an early 2023 survey, and has an estimated population of 11,644,000, an average literacy rate of 88.71 percent (of which male and female literacy is 91.71 and 85.44 percent), and the sex ratio of Bangalore city is 923 per 1000 males.
I reached out to Jija Hari Singh, to talk about what it takes for a woman to break the glass ceiling in one of the toughest professions, handle insensitive gender environments, deal with Bigotry and gender bias, and still leave her mark as a leader; and how a heightened EQ (Emotional Quotient) in a woman can fuel progress, and art of thriving in life through self-mastery, curiosity, and creativity. Excerpts from the Interview…
Q. Jija, is it true that the Indian police culture is characterized by gender inequalities and hegemonic masculinity?
A: Of course! Women police officers face greater organizational, psychological, and physiological stress and distress than men officers. Especially with the bias and gender-related work stressors like perceptions of sexually offensive behaviors, vulgar/offensive language around them, and sexual and racial harassment. Police forces across the world (not just in India), have been strongly patriarchal and also adversarial towards women who “dared” to join their ranks. Especially, 40 years ago, it was almost unheard of.
Q: What about you personally? Did you also find yourself dealing with bigotry, rude and supercilious behavior, or a disparaging attitude from your men colleagues that made you feel less influential than your men colleagues? How did you handle it?
A: Indeed, it was a rough time. Difficulties of confronting and overcoming prejudice, rude and supercilious behavior, and bigotry were tougher than the actual policing duties. How did I handle it? A combination of strategies, I could say. A meticulous and flawless working style, a thorough knowledge of the job, a lot of homework, and thinking through SOPs and Emergency plans, combined with assertiveness and a sensible, common-sense, often compassionate approach cannot go wrong. When it is untiringly repeated, the adversaries back off, noise levels come down and you emerge victorious, again and again. Results in policing, positive or negative cannot be hidden. Crime prevention and investigation or law and order maintenance or security administration are all in the public eye and quickly bring laurels and public appreciation or condemnation. Good work is seen! And acknowledged.
Q. As someone who has been a catalyst for change, and a Thought leader, do you think that Indian patriarchal masculinity is being challenged in contemporary times? What will it take to change the long-standing patriarchal values to be more inclusive of women?
A. If we look at India’s rich cultural heritage, during the Vedic period, women enjoyed equal status with men in all aspects of life, and this is actually documented by ancient Indian saints like Patanjali and Katayana too. Moving through the “Medieval period, and the late medieval period” (from the 13th to the 16th century, ending with the start of the Mughal Empire in 1526), women’s image became a self-sacrificing, self-effacing pure image, trained only as faithful wives and devout mothers, as you rightfully said. Let’s face it, like many Asian, Hispanic, and Latino cultures, Indian society too, is still patriarchal, and gender inequalities in patriarchal societies favor men with the gender norms constructed around masculinity and a man’s sense of self, that hinges on his ability to control and protect his daughter (and her chastity), till she’s married.
However, let me share some interesting data I came across. Apparently, Thailand and Cambodia are the only two countries, which have more women running companies than men, and it’s also true that, when the top manager of a firm is a woman, that firm usually tends to have a larger share of permanent female workers. Amazing. Maybe we should study this more to understand why this is manageable there and not in other parts of the world.
Perhaps, the answer lies in bringing in attitudinal changes in both men and women – a collective social effort, an awareness, to build gender equity, to empower, encourage, and welcome more women in any male-dominated profession. We need to encourage men and educate them to take responsibility as responsible sexual partners, husbands, and fathers, and willingly work towards removing stereotypical attitudes, socio-cultural barriers, violence against women, and gender injustice, and increasing women’s workforce.