Cheers from Indian MPs after parliament elects first female speaker
The Indian parliament has elected its first ever female speaker, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and a member of the Dalit caste, once known as an Untouchables.
MPs thumped their desks to cheer Meira Kumar, 64, as she was congratulated by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and LK Advani, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata party, after being elected unopposed.
Kumar is the daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a former deputy prime minister and a prominent leader of the Dalits, who sit on the lowest rung of India’s complex caste system. A lawyer, she has been elected to parliament five times and has also served as social justice minister. She gave up her job as a career diplomat to enter politics.
As speaker, Kumar presides over India’s powerful lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha. She replaces Somnath Chaterjee, a member of the Brahmin caste, India’s highest. He belonged to the Communist party of India (Marxist) until he was expelled after a dispute with party leadership last year.
Kumar’s election should boost the Congress party’s image as pro-female and supportive of the rights of the lower castes. The party chose Pratibha Patil as president – the country’s first female head of state – in 2007.
India has had other women in positions of power, most notably Indira Gandhi, who was elected prime minister in 1966, but women still face a great deal of everyday discrimination. Daughters are often considered a burden, mostly because tradition requires their families to pay large dowries. Their education is often neglected, and many do not get adequate medical treatment.
Ranjana Kumari, the director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, called Kumar’s election “indicative of greater acceptance for women’s leadership”.