India names first woman speaker

India's Parliament elects Meira Kumar, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and an untouchable, as speaker.

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India's Parliament elected its first-ever female speaker today, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and an untouchable - a member of India's lowest caste. Meira Kumar, 64, was elected unopposed. Lawmakers thumped their desks to cheer her as she was congratulated by the prime minister Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. She is the daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a former deputy prime Minster and a prominent leader of the Dalits, known also as the untouchables, who sit on the lowest rung of India's complex caste system.

A lawyer by training, she has been elected to Parliament five times and has earlier served as social justice minister. She gave up her job as a career diplomat to enter politics. As speaker, Ms Kumar presides over India's powerful lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha. The body opened its first session on Monday. Her election will likely boost the Congress party's image as pro-female and a supporter of the rights of the lower castes.

The party chose Pratibha Patil as president, the country's first female head of state, in 2007. India has had other women in positions of power - most notably Indira Gandhi, who was elected prime minister in 1966 - but women still face a great deal of everyday discrimination. Daughters, for instance, are often seen as a burden - mostly because tradition requires a bride's family to pay the groom's family a large dowry of cash and gifts. Their education is also often neglected, and many do not get adequate medical treatment.

A Congress-led coalition won national elections that ended May 16, capturing more seats than most analysts predicted. * AP