With Kamala Harris assuming office as the United States’ first female vice president this month, conversations have been renewed over the role of women leaders in politics – particularly in South Asia, given Harris’ Indian heritage. South Asia has seen many female politicians and even elected them as heads of government, from Indira Gandhi – the first and only woman prime minister of India – to Benazir Bhutto – the first female head of state of a Muslim country and twice premier of Pakistan – despite being home to largely patriarchal and male-dominated societies. These women leaders, however, have strong dynastic backgrounds that boosted their political careers. There are also questions as to whether their tenures have been any different from their male counterparts’ or have led to any significant changes on the ground concerning women’s rights and their better representation in government and society.
A recent online cross-border discussion hosted by Himal Southasian shed light on female representation in South Asian countries and discussed how women leaders’ ideologies and governance have shaped politics. Speakers also talked about the challenges women face today as leaders and political workers in these countries. The discussion was moderated by Indian journalist, writer, and editor Luxmi Murthy.
“Does women in politics mean having women from dynasties?” asked Murthy as she initiated the discussion, affirming that this has been quite the notion of women in politics in South Asia. “Does dynasties alone explain the presence of these women that made it to the top?” she continued while asking panelists what other factors they think play a role in the electoral process, including at the regional and provincial levels in South Asian countries. Murthy kicked off the discussion by giving the example of Indian politicians Mayawati, former chief minister of India’s Uttar Pradesh state, and J.Jayalalithaa, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, which could be seen “making a difference.”
In Bangladesh, women have played an important political role since the country’s struggle for independence. “Women in Bangladesh were involved in the resistance movements [when the country was a part of Pakistan], including the language and student’s movements for a long time and then in the 1971 war,” said human rights activist and scholar Hameeda Hossain from Bangladesh. “Women were active and raising issues that were particular to them and, partly as a result of that, Article 28 was included in the 1972 constitution that talks about gender equality between men and women.”
Hossain emphasized the role of women’s rights organizations in recording women’s demands and voicing their positions in the street, underlying their importance for social and political change for women.
“The women’s movement in Bangladesh has taken forward steps and have particularly stressed legal reforms of various kinds,” she said, adding that one thing that women had wanted was to be elected directly as a result of votes from the people instead of selection by their leaders, indicating that some of the process is dynastic in nature.
Talking about Pakistan, academic and activist Neelam Hussain said that South Asia, including Pakistan, has a long history of having women in high power and holding iconic positions, yet their place in the public imagination is not reflected in the condition of women in general.
“It seems to be a strange kind of contradiction… the women who come in on a dynastic basis or as icons from well-placed political families, to begin with, are not marking a point of departure from normal patriarchal practice,” she underscored, adding that they come in as the “daughters” – giving the examples of Bhutto, Gandhi, and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh – and are “surrogates” for the men who they are representing and to whom they owe their identity.
“The fact that they forge their own place later is another matter, but they come as the part of a patriarchal, patrilineal continuum and then they are set apart as signifiers of their families, class, or caste and separated from the generality of women,” she contended.
These positions, however, still don’t spare women leaders from patriarchal and sexist attitudes, and the kind of abuse ordinary women are vulnerable to.
Hussain recalled that there was a huge pressure on Benazir Bhutto to get married and she was even subjected to “scurrilous” abuse from the opposition. “The mildest that I can remember is, which was inside the National Assembly, when she [Benazir] walked in in a yellow shirt, there were sniggers of ‘taxi, taxi,’ by the parliamentarians,” she said.
In Sri Lanka, the situation mirrors the rest of South Asia, even though the island country enjoys the distinction of having had the world’s first woman prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Ambika Satkunanathan, a Sri Lankan lawyer and human rights advocate, was of the view that the region hasn’t seen substantive social change or progressive legal changes, despite women being in power.
“Examples of these women are used by people to justify why we don’t need quotas and to deny inequality,” she said. “What we have sadly seen is, though not always, that women also become foot soldiers of patriarchy because they have to survive within that system and defend the values [that brought them to power] but discriminate against them.”
Satkunanathan added that there are two different standards for men and women in Sri Lanka and that “men can engage even in the most violent, indecent and unethical behavior and that would be okay but if a women parliamentarian does the slightest thing, there’s an uproar.”
“In Sri Lanka, we have seen dynastic politics and it is very difficult for an average woman to get into politics and survive, but the positives include that we have managed to have parliamentary level caucuses and women have managed to work across party lines,” she said, adding that despite this women still have to work within patriarchal and hierarchical internal party and government structures. Women’s groups have found allies in women politicians, whom they then support by providing information and talking points that have had limited success, she added.
In Nepal, it’s only very recently – since 2006 – that women have been elected to high offices. Here, too, women who have become prominent in the political space largely belong to political families, as per political activist and academic Manushi Yami Bhattarai, who spoke from Kathmandu.
Bhattarai contended that although Nepal’s new constitution is celebrated for being inclusive and relatively progressive – it mandates at least 33 percent women representation and thereby compels political parties to make seats for them in the parliament – it’s a reality that mostly politically and economically affluent women come forward.
“That’s the problem and just stating this problem is never enough,” Bhattarai continued, as she said that in a country like Nepal, institutions are still weak and there many hindrances involved for women to enter into politics and sustain themselves. She further stressed the need to correct structural factors, formal and informal, including family and marriage, to assist and enable better representation of women in politics and in power.
Asked how the education system can help instill leadership skills in women and tackle patriarchal mindsets in these countries, the speakers didn’t seem optimistic about the current state of affairs and felt critical thinking wasn’t being encouraged in schools and in their curricula.
The Pakistani education system “is not geared to engender leadership qualities in anybody and certainly not women,” Hussain said, regretting that the system rather “constrains” women, non-Muslim minorities, and other groups marginalized on the basis of gender, caste, and religion.
“Valorization is of military and religious figures or nationalist icons like Jinnah – Pakistan’s founder – or poet Iqbal,” she added.
In agreement with Hussain, Satkunanathan said that in Sri Lanka the education system is constructed to kill the mind rather than enable it to develop. “You are not encouraged to think critically, you cannot challenge power structures and also the curriculum itself can be sexist and have a lot of stereotypes about minorities,” she mentioned, adding that the system exasperates the social problems that already exist relating to both men and women.
Allia Bukhari is a journalist from Pakistan and Erasmus Mundus scholar.