The swearing in tomorrow of India's first female president, 72-year-old Pratibha Patil, will not be the first occasion India has used its largely ceremonial post to offer underrepresented groups a voice. But while there's a lot to celebrate about the election of a woman in a nation where gender discrimination remains (according to recent reports) "bitter," "deep-rooted" and "widespread," it remains unclear whether Patil's victory will bring significant changes to the daily lives of her countrywomen.
Patil is a former governor and member of the Indian Parliament whose political career began four years before Indira Gandhi was elected prime minister in 1966. Last week, she won nearly two-thirds of the country's votes after what had been an especially acrimonious campaign. Still, Patil faces lingering accusations of trying to shield family members from police investigations and scorn from Muslim leaders who denounced her call to women to abandon wearing headscarves.
And although we're usually optimistic, Patil has us asking once again -- just as Nefertiti's Egyptian subjects may have more than 3,000 years ago -- whether female leaders necessarily help make female lives better. Will her example widen the role of women in South Asian politics? Will watching the brass of the world's fourth-largest armed forces greet a woman as their commander in chief be a powerful enough symbol to dissuade Indian families from aborting female fetuses out of preference for sons? More to the point, what effect -- if any -- will having a female leader make on the issues of gender equality in her country?