Imagine being labeled a ‘bad girl’ for eating too much, pouting, or not making round rotis.
That’s what school posters in India did in the 80s and 90s. In 2015, a group of co-ed art students at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore created a project to parody them.
The new posters criticized these “ideal behaviors” for boys and girls, illustrating the ridiculous judgments women in India face today. Kiran Bedi faced these same judgments when she was building her career as the first woman in the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1972.
Photo: Kiran Bedi speaking in 2011
Despite the prevailing belief that women were meant to lead domestic lives, Bedi completed her training at the National Police Academy and received her first post as a Sub-Divisional Police Officer in New Delhi. For some, the mention of New Delhi might jog memories of 2012 headlines. The gang rape of twenty-three-year-old Jyoti Singh gained international attention after reports surfaced about the brutal attack Singh and a male friend suffered on a public bus.
Cries for reform swept India.
When Singh died thirteen days later, her mother publicized her name to attack the stigma surrounding sexual assault victims.
Considering the ongoing violence against women in India today, it is hard not to wonder if Bedi was concerned about her safety or ability to enforce the law as a young woman forging a social justice career in the ‘70s. Yet, she didn’t let fear or societal disapproval interfere with helping the communities she served.
She is famously known for charging oncoming protesters with a cane in 1978, even when some of these protesters threatened herself and her platoon with bare swords. This bravery stood out against her male colleagues, who had held back, and it earned her a reputation as fearless.
Born in 1949 to Prakash and Prem Peshawariya, Bedi and her sisters were raised unconventionally. While most Indian families viewed women as a liability or a drain on resources due to customs around marital dowries, Bedi and her sisters were encouraged to pursue education and activities outside the home.
Bedi went on to receive multiple degrees, including a Bachelor of Law from Delhi University in 1988 and a Ph.D. on drug abuse and domestic violence from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1993.
Her parents’ liberalism likely contributed to Bedi’s willingness to challenge conventions. In fact, Bedi is still remembered for removing former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s car with a crane for being illegally parked. Until then, no police officer had challenged civilians who were considered VIP.
However, Bedi didn’t believe in selective enforcement of the law. Some claim this led to her being invited for lunch with the minister in 1982 to applaud her diligence upholding regulations. She later received the nickname ‘Crane Bedi’ for her continued use of cranes as a traffic cop.Although, it was her unwillingness to be defined by the pressures placed on Indian women that made Bedi a true leader of change.
As she said at the FICCI Ladies Organization in 2008 for International Women’s Day,
“Women have talent and leadership abilities. We just have to let them in and make them be visible.”
Bedi is a shining example of transformative change. She harnessed her leadership abilities as the Deputy Director General of Narcotics and transformed the Narcotics Control Bureau by partnering with the non-profit, Navjyoti; an organization she founded with sixteen other officers from the Delhi police force to focus on preventive policing.
Preventive policing is the establishment of community systems and programs to encourage the self-regulation of behaviors.
So, Navjyoti’s initial focus was to prevent crime through welfare policing, the education of children living on the street, developing career skills for women peddling drugs, and promoting detox programs for drug abusers.
In 1991, Bedi’s dedication and wide-scale approach to reform was rewarded with the Asia Region Award for Drug Prevention and Control. She took this same idea of preventive policing coupled with her courage and social justice focus to Tihar when she was named the first, and only, woman Inspector General of Prisons for the high-security facility of 9,700 inmates.
Bedi talks openly about how this position was meant to keep her out of the public eye after she upset government officials and male superiors with her firm legal stance,. She transformed the predominantly male prison into a place of rehabilitation, with activities like meditation, yoga, and vocational training.
Bediand believed if a community, even a prison community, was given the resources and training, it could become self-reliant and self-policing. She received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in 1994 for these reforms and continues to fight for change.
Perhaps Bedi’s perseverance can be credited to the struggles she faced in her early tennis career.
At the 2015 Seattle International Foundation’s Women of the World event, Bedi said, “…you sometimes prepare to compete in adversity. For example, I didn’t have a court [to practice tennis]…I had to hit against a wall…But I didn’t just stop at tennis. That confidence spills over everywhere, because that becomes you.”
Bedi’s role as a leader and figure of female empowerment was internationally recognized when she was named the U.N.’s Civilian Police Adviser in 2003. She is the first Indian and the first woman to be elected, and in 2004 she received a U.N. medal for her work.
She’s also received two honorary doctorates for her transformative policing and awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship from 1994-98 for her book, It’s Always Possible. She’s considered one of the most influential authors in the world and holds numerous Woman of the Year awards, the Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice in 2005, and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Bedi’s confidence and determination is explained in a 2003 interview with Simi Garewal:
“I’ve paid no prices. I’ve always made choices. It was a clear choice not to be a housewife…but to be an equal partner? Yes. And pursue my career? One hundred percent yes. Be a mother? Yes…[t]hese have all been choices. I’ve not sacrificed. I’ve grown up to carve out a life of my own and not be restricted to being Mrs. So-and-so.”
Bedi’s repeated success proves women in India can accomplish as much as men. Bedi is not only a female leader and inspiration calling for reform and accountability but also a role model to all Indian citizens and to the world of what one person can accomplish when they mobilize their community.