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Inspirational Woman: Devyani Khobragade | Indian Foreign Service officer | Medical doctor

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I was born as the first child to a father who had moved out of the traditional ancestral rural environment to gradually rise to be a civil servant. I grew up listening to his tales about Dr Ambedkar and other inspiring figures, and the stories of discrimination that he and his forefathers had faced for generations. After completing MBBS, I joined Indian Foreign Service out of my love for working for larger causes and for travel. As a young diplomat, I learnt German in Berlin.  I then handled relations with Pakistan both in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. I worked in Rome and handled relations with Indian community and trade matters in the USA. I have had and continue to have my fair share of testing times too. But a supporting husband and two lovely daughters have been a rock of support to me in these tough times. Difficulties in professional and personal life have enhanced my empathy and motivated me to take up social causes, running, perform yoga, meditation and writing to emerge as a better person, who can give back to the society in the best possible manner.

devyani

Tell us about yourself, your background and what you do currently
I was a first-born girl child to Dalit parents who represent the first generation of Ambedkar-inspired socio-economic and political changes. Às far as my academic credentials are concerned, I am a doctor by training and eventually joined Indian Foreign Service as a diplomat. I am extremely fortunate and feel proud to have the opportunity to represent my country, its culture and values to the world. I am highly motivated to work against social inequality and discrimination still prevailing in our society and am always trying to seek opportunities for the underprivileged strata of the society, such as the Dalits and women. I convey the same strong support for social equality through my writings which talks about societal atrocities in contemporary India.

Tell us about any current projects or initiatives you wish to promote
Achieving physical and mental health through awareness and confidence of your body is one of the causes which is very close to my heart. This is especially absent among the people of lower strata of the society and women and girls. I wish to support and promote the cause of health awareness primarily amongst the rural and underprivileged girls. For this, I participated in a cross-country run in Maharashtra to increase sensitivity and knowledge about it. On Apirl 14, this month, I did a 10 Km Run for Equality in Jaipur on the 126 Birth Anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar. When I run for causes I always tell women and girls to own their bodies and own their public spaces. They gasp when I tell them I am 43 and I only started running marathons when I turned 40! I wish better fate and better health for my daughters and younger women.
I’m also actively engaged in promoting menstrual health for women. I participate in various campaigns which try to raise more awareness against social taboos associated with menstruation. It’s quite unfortunate that we are less enlightened now than we were in ancient times when female body instead of being objectified were rather revered and respected, and even prayers were offered to bleeding goddesses as seen in Kamakhya temple in Assam. Taboo and shame around a physiological function of the body affects women’s physical and mental health. I want not just women but the whole world to celebrate and respect the female body and its functions. This requires attitudinal change in society.

I also write on social causes associated with the women and the downtrodden. My writing and short stories are inspired by the desire to shed light on those stories of oppression and injustices which still prevails but are often shadowed and neglected by other prominent stories of development in modern India. Here I find the works of Premchand particularly inspiring.

I also want to explore myself as a human being and enrich my soul with the help of our deep philosophical roots of vipassana and yoga. I want to devote more time to practising meditation for perfecting detachment of a ’vipassi’ or ‘karmayogin’. My next aim is to do a silent retreat of Vipassana meditation for one month. I also teach yoga to young mothers in my residential complex.

To encourage, nurture and support women in bring women into unchartered, unconventional professions such as diplomacy, administration and politics, where they can make changes to the lot of women through policy making and implementation is another goal. For this, I undertake voluntary talks and coaching for civil services aspirants all over the country.

Being a Diplomat, I would also like to see a woman oriented foreign policy and making even a small contribution in that area will make me very happy.

What has been your biggest challenge in achieving your success?
Perseverance and grit determination are two common keys to succeed in any field for any person, but I personally found mindsets against women and social strata to be stressful and painful to me. Nevertheless, I have been more fortunate than many of my compatriots and gender-mates. Having said that, I still get bogged down when I hear news like banning entry of women inside temples, when I read sexual expletives against women taking public positions or even generally, on the social media. This reflects misogyny and sexism women face even today.

What has been your greatest achievement personally?
When I got selected in Indian Foreign Service, I thought I had bettered becoming a doctor. With forever growing experience, my mental and social horizons have also expanded enormously which has taught me to give in everything I have as a Foreign Service Officer to serve my country, even when there are big obstacles or paucity of resources. But I still think that my best is yet to come and will be dedicated to serving social causes for underprivileged. I will truly be happy and satisfied only when my work for browbeaten and disadvantaged brings about some positive changes in their lives.

If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing?
Writing, and inspiring, educating and working for young girls. This certainly will make my day!

Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My father, Shri Uttam Khobragade to begin with, and then his inspiration- Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. I’m equally inspired by Dalit women leaders like Savitri Phule, and Ramabai Ambedkar, as also hugely influenced by writings of women and Dalit women writer.

What does the future hold for you?
I don’t know, and don’t wish to! I am a firm believer in the here and now – and my practice of Vipassana helps me focus on the present with all my mind and heart in it. That is the only way I know to shape the future!

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