Friday, May 3, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Indira Gandhi's "What Educated Women Can Do"

The third Prime Minister of India, first elected in 1966 and again in 1980 until her assassination, Indira Gandhi was a force formidable and the only woman to serve as India's leader.

Given at the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Indraprastha College for Women in 1974, Gandhi's speech on "What Educated Women Can Do" is not just a politician's boosterish speech for a popular cause. Gandhi herself understood the spotty educational opportunities women faced in India. Wikipedia notes that her own education consisted primarily of home tutoring, and that her university education was upended by the need to care for her mother. It likely didn't help that she stopped and started her university education a few times in both India and England.

As a result, this speech decades later took the listeners back to her own childhood, as she noted how unusual it was for girls to leave the house, let alone get an education:
I remember what used to happen here. I still remember the days when living in old Delhi even as a small child of seven or eight. I had to go out in a doli (carriage) if I left the house. We just did not walk. Girls did not walk in the streets. First, you had your sari with which you covered your head, then you had another shawl or something with which you covered your hand and all the body, then you had a white shawl, with which every thing was covered again although your face was open fortunately. Then you were in the doli, which again was covered by another cloth. And this was in a family or community which did not observe purdah of any kind at all.
Later, she turned to some educating of her own, asking the educated women in her audience to broaden their world view about India and help turn its public image around. It's a call to action that I suspect she knew would also help women to speak out in situations of all kinds:
I do not know how many of you know that the countries of Western Europe and Japan import 41 per cent of their food needs, whereas India imports just under two per cent. Yet, somehow we ourselves project an image that India is out with the begging bowl. And naturally when we ourselves say it, other people will say it much louder and much stronger. It is true, of course, that our two per cent is pretty big because we are a very big country and we have a far bigger population than almost any country in the world with the exception of China. We have to see and you, the educated women, because it is great privilege for you to have higher education, you have to try and see our problems in the perspective of what has happened here in this country and what is happening all over the world.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Share your perspective: Gandhi uses this speech to disclose her perspective that the people of India were contributing to the nation's image around the world, then used data to debunk the going image--at one defusing the practice and arming her listeners with a new weapon to use when they encountered the myths. When people ask you to share your "wisdom" with the crowd, this is an effective way to do it. 
  • When you're the leader, be generous with your personal perspective: If you think it's tough today to find women speakers on the program, it was even more the case in India in the 1970s. So this female prime minister shares stories of her own upbringing and even addresses visible objects of curiousity to the women she's addressing, like her decision to cut her long hair in defiance of tradition. These personal details close the distance between the public figure and the audience, and allow the audience to relate to its leader.
  • Don't let your hosts off the hook: Gandhi saves her congratulations on the school's anniversary for her closing lines (something I wish more speakers would do instead of front-loading them). But she by no means sticks to platitudes, nor does she let them off the hook for future achievements: "This college has had a high reputation but we must always see that we do better than those who were there before us," she says. It's a call to action, wrapped in a congratulatory note, and one important to a national leader hoping to affect change on a great scale.
Once again, I'm caught wishing we had a video of this fine speech, but here's the text for you to examine. You can read more about her life in Indira Gandhi: Daughter of India. What do you think of this famous speech?

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