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Being a woman diplomat means having confidence and the ability to laugh at this world of men

Three formidable diplomats from the UK. All women.

columns Updated: Nov 08, 2017 17:21 IST
Mariot Leslie with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton at a conference at the NATO headquarters, Brussels, December 7, 2011
Mariot Leslie with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton at a conference at the NATO headquarters, Brussels, December 7, 2011(REUTERS)

Maeve Geraldine Fort is not a name that will ring any bell in India.

But in the restricted world of diplomacy, it will ring as many as that world holds.

And it is a name that needs to be known beyond that circle for its owner was not just a diplomat, a British diplomat, but a woman of great skill, stamina and huge, huge guts. And that combination is needed in any walk of life. Indeed, in life.

I met her in Pretoria, in 1996 when she was Britain’s high commissioner to Nelson Mandela’s South Africa and I, that of India. Before calling on her – a protocol rite that newly arrived diplomats need to observe – I was told “…the woman is quite formidable…does not talk much…listens carefully… knows this continent and the Arab world like the back of her palm...Basically, a tough woman and tough diplomat ”. In other words, I am to take my call as no courtesy call but Very Serious Business.

Tall and thoughtful in an astute way, she answered my questions tersely and asked few but very searching questions, about India’s interests in southern Africa. I knew that in this British member of the Namibian Contact Group I was talking to an arch negotiator whose reputation had spread across the African continent as a tactician and negotiator for her country’s interests abroad. I remember Maeve Fort and always will for an incident. A small number of diplomats, including Fort and I, had been invited by Helen Suzman, the legendary political activist and friend of Mandela’s to dinner in Johannesburg. As we were standing around over cocktails, a diplomat’s wife found that one of her earrings had gone missing. “ I had it on me a moment ago”, she said. “It must have dropped somewhere here”. Within moments several of the men, diplomats and non-diplomats, were on all fours, looking for the missing gem. Maeve Fort did not move an inch. But her eyes did. And very soon, we heard her familiar voice announce : “There it is”. The gem gleamed from a corner of the heavily-patterned carpet. The British diplomat had got a result from sheer tactics – look sharp, stay firm, above the din and bustle of the excited.

In Colombo, some three years later, another British high commissioner was to strike me with her sharpness. The Norwegian Initiative had just managed to got a dialogue going between the government headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE, when Prabhakaran announced a unilateral ceasefire. Any cessation of ballistics is in itself a good thing but there is something called mutuality. A unilateral cease-fire can be unilaterally revoked. The hugely sharp British High Commissioner Linda Duffield asked me about the development. I said, reflexively, “High Commissioner, I think it is a very good thing”. High Commissioner Duffield was quiet for a moment and then said “Excellency, your assessment is most interesting but what I want to know is what India, the Government of India, thinks about it”. I was put in my place, and was educated. A diplomat is a person and a non-person. She or he is, at end of day, a reflection.

It was my privilege to find for a colleague in Oslo, two years further on, another ace British diplomat – Mariot Leslie. I was, again, fore-cautioned. “She got here weeks before she presented her credentials, just to learn the language before commencing work”. By a convention the King and Queen hosted a small number of freshly-arrived ambassadors to a sit-down lunch. As soon as we were seated, His Majesty asked Leslie “And so, Ambassador, how is your Norwegian doing?” As all eyes turned to the young British Ambassador, she replied, “It would have done much better, Your Majesty, but for one person”. Raising his eyebrows, the King asked “Who may that be?” Without a moment’s pause, Ambassador Leslie said “You, Your Majesty. You always speak to me in English”. An Ambassador may be blunt, as long as truth is being told, even a small truth.

I dedicate these words to the first woman to join India’s Foreign Service, Chonira Belliappa Muthamma (1924-2009) who served as Ambassador to Hungary, Ghana and the Netherlands and whose life-story is a lesson in what it takes to be a woman in diplomacy – dignity, self-assurance and the ability to laugh at this world of men who think they make all the difference.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University

The views expressed are personal