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A tête-à-tête with Sonia Barbry, the first female Consul General of France in Mumbai

While women need to be celebrated everyday, this International Women's Day, we salute the indomitable female spirit. In an exclusive conversation with The Chatter, Sonia Barbry, Consul General of France in Mumbai, talks about her journey of going where no woman has gone before–as the first woman in her position after 153 years as well as how she converted her passion–India–into her profession.

First of all, you probably get asked this all the time. But, being the first female French Consul General in Mumbai is certainly a tall order. How has the experience been so far?
To be back in India, [where I have lived for several years in the previous two decades], in this important position has been truly exhilarating. I’ve had only warm welcomes and friendly reactions from Indian partners. But to arrive at that position hasn’t been easy. Despite the progress made in the last few years, women at high level positions are still a minority in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

You lived in Varanasi as a student and speak Hindi and are a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. Where does this love for India stem from? Tell us more about your relationship with the country.
I came to India as a student to do an internship and fell irresistibly attracted to its culture, arts, history, and philosophy. I wanted to understand it from within. So, I decided to go to Varanasi and studied Bharatanatyam, Dhrupad, Hindi and Yoga there for two years, while teaching French at Banaras Hindu University. I also did a three year degree in Hindi Literature and South Asian Civilization from the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris. Then later, as a diplomat, I came back for four years as a political counselor in our Embassy in Delhi and then was the Head of the South Asia Department in the Ministry, covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lank and Maldives. So, I transformed my passion into a professional competence and specialty.

How has your experience of travelling within India been? Is the common French perception of India accurate according to you?
Since my first stay in India in 1996, I have travelled extensively in the country, by buses, trains, and mostly alone. I have to say that I always felt safe even though times have changed and I would be a bit more careful today than I was in the 1990’s. I love travelling to the less-travelled areas and meeting the people there who are always curious and welcoming. And since I can communicate in Hindi, I always have very special interactions. I definitely think that the image of India abroad regarding safety for tourists is not fair compared to the reality, especially if you compare it to so many other places on this planet. I feel much more safe here than in many other countries.

How has India changed since you were last here?
Oh, hugely! When I came to India for the first time, there was no internet, no cable TV and the few cars that were seen were Ambassadors. Everyone was travelling by train as there were very few flights which were excessively expensive. So, it was a whole different experience. During my travels in the historical and heritage places, there were very few tourists and life was much slower: one would take time to visit and feel the atmosphere of a place and its people and not just stay for few hours and leave.

How do you think it’s changed for women, professionally and socially?
I have always loved the fact that India has been able to make space for women in society and in work places. Even if there is still a lot to be done –like in most countries of the world—to reduce discriminations and inequalities (especially in rural areas), there are many women in India who hold very high positions in politics, public administration, finance, scientific research and industries. These women are strong role models for the younger ones, to show them that it is possible to achieve their dreams.

As a woman in a position in power, what have been your challenges? Have you experienced discrimination and differential treatment? Also, what are your thoughts on the #MeToo movement?
Diplomacy has always been a very male-dominated field. In 1972, France appointed its first woman Ambassador and in 1982 we had only three of them. Even today, only about one fourth of the Ambassadors are women. It means that there is still a lot of work to be done to change perceptions, and also habits to allow women to work, get promoted, and be appointed at positions of responsibility.

I think the #MeToo movement is a good thing. Of course, it comes with excesses which have to be addressed, but it is necessary that women feel that they have a voice, that they can speak out and denounce unacceptable behaviors. And, it is also necessary that men realise that these behaviors are condemnable and will not be accepted anymore.

How have you seen Indian women evolve in your time spent here?
As I said, even 22 years ago I felt that women in India had a space in society and were never only “confined to the kitchen”. But this space has grown even more and it should be a source of pride for India to see so many women performing in the top academic institutes. Yet, there is still a lot more to be done, especially in smaller cities and rural areas, where feudalism and patriarchy often still dominates.

What do you admire most about French and Indian women respectively? What do you think they can learn from each other?
In both countries I love the elegance of the women, as well as their strength. More than learning from each other, I think women from our two countries should support each other in their respective empowerments.

What are three things you love and three things you hate about India?
I love:
1.India’s ancient philosophy and wisdom
2.India’a vital energy
3.India’s diversity

I don’t like:
1.The pollution
2.The lack of awareness regarding littering and throwing plastics and rubbish outdoors
3.The noise pollution

Curry is a favourite with the British. Do the French have a favourite Indian food? What’s yours?
A lot of people like Indian food even though it is not as popular and well known as it is in England. I love Indian food, whether it is from the south, north or west. I have a weakness for kakori and galouti kebabs.

Who are your role models?
When I was a teenager, I felt very fascinated by and admired women explorers, like Alexandra David-Néel.

On the occasion of Women’s Day, what’s your wishlist for women across the world?
That women will be respected and given the opportunity to realise their full potential, on a personal as well as professional level.

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