Of the 13 female leaders in contemporary Asia who have exercised national political power, only one has not belonged to a notable political dynasty — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The other 12 female prime ministers, presidents, or de facto leaders (excluding those who hold or have held largely symbolic political offices) in South and East Asia during the second half of the last century and beginning of the 21st century were the wives, widows, sisters, and daughters of male politicians who led independence struggles, ruling parties, or opposition movements, with many of them assassinated or facing political persecution. Women dynasts such as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, President Corazon C. Aquino of the Philippines, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar are among the best known modern Asian leaders.
This relatively large number of female leaders in Asia appears surprising given their general paucity globally. As of September 2021, only 13 of 193 countries had a female head of government, or less than 7 percent. Female Asian leaders have headed countries that mostly have high levels of gender inequality according to the 2021 Global Gender Index report, raising the question of how they were able to break through this (very low) glass ceiling. Traditional religious practices also appeared to be an obstacle, with significant religious-based, gender discriminatory practices in countries with female national leaders: the predominantly Buddhist countries of Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, the Catholic Philippines where conservative religious teachings limit gender equality, and in the predominantly Islamic countries of Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan where it is “no secret that religion and state ‘conspire’ against women.”
In addition, once female leaders came to power, they often faced fierce resistance — civilian protests, military coups, or even assassination. Women leaders have brought little if any improvement in gender equality in the countries they have ruled.
Why So Many Asian Female Dynastic Leaders?
For the dozen female leaders who took power “over his dead body” or at least under the sway of their father or husband’s political legacy, their political inheritance was aided, not harmed by traditional gender stereotypes in patriarchal societies. As women, they were portrayed as apolitical — virtuous alternatives to corrupt Machiavellian men. They proved better political avatars because, judged in traditional gender terms, they were not expected to match the political qualities of their male predecessor. Instead, they were more easily portrayed as reluctant politicians, selflessly taking on a heavy political burden as “mothers,” “daughters,” or “sisters” of the nation. Viewed through this traditional gender lens (which they often instrumentalized) as weak and apolitical, they were not seen as threatening to potential male rivals, allowing them to unite an opposition movement or political party and more easily win political power.
The case of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar illustrates how gender stereotyping can sometimes prove a political plus. Having returned from abroad to care for her gravely ill mother, she was recruited to lead opposition to military rule in 1988. As the daughter of independence hero Aung San, she helped unite the opposition and won mass support. Many Burmese had grown up with Aung San’s picture on their walls showing he was very much alive in the country’s historical lore. Despite being detained for nearly two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal to ordinary Burmese never waned, making her the unchallenged center of anti-regime protest. She briefly became the country’s de facto leader as state counselor from 2016-2021 between two periods of military rule. She was again imprisoned by the military after the February 2021 coup, which was again met by fierce civilian resistance.
The Downfall or Discrediting of Female Successors
Once in office, the very qualities that had helped propel women to the top began to work against them, often leading to their political downfall. Male politicians agitated against them when they began exercising authority as the women had been expected to reign, not rule.
Having been presented as morally upright during political campaigns or demonstrations, as leaders they were held to high moral standards, which they were often unable to uphold, with many engulfed in corruption scandals. While several were accused of malfeasance when in power and two were imprisoned after leaving office, no case was as spectacular as that of South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, who was stripped of the presidency in 2016 after mass protests and jailed in 2017 (she was pardoned last year). Once seen as the “incarnation of her father,” president and dictator Park Chung-hee, she had “legendary status among conservatives” which made her the “Queen of Elections.” But during as details of corrupt connections and extensive privilege emerged, her image morphed into that of a spoiled “princess.”
Another major cause of controversy was the national legacy these female leaders claimed to represent based on the nationalist stance of their fathers or husbands. The first dynastic female leader in modern Asia, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandanaraike, continued the intolerant pro-Sinhalese Buddhist policies of her assassinated husband, further alienating Hindu Tamils and paving the way for eventual civil war. In Bangladesh, competing notions of national identity (Bengali vs. Muslim) deepened the political conflict between the two “Begums,” Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who not only long alternated in power but also were fighting over what kind of nation Bangladesh should be. Under the guise of combating Islamist extremism, Hasina has established “one-woman rule” in which she rigs elections and persecutes opponents, including Zia, who has been sentenced to a long jail term. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the Burman Buddhist national hero, defended the Myanmar military against accusations of genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya at the U.N.’s highest court in The Hague despite her being championed by human rights groups when she has been persecuted by these same armed forces.
Why Has So Little Been Done to Advance Women’s Rights?
Female dynastic leaders’ willingness to assume traditional gender roles helps explain why few dynastic female leaders fought strongly for gender equality. This was the case even for Pakistan’s Bhutto who was once celebrated as the first woman ever elected to head an Islamic nation, becoming “a symbol of hope for women on a global scale.” But Bhutto was also at the center of a patronage-based political system in a country where feudal-like conditions were still common and she faced vehement opposition from Islamists. Her husband (through a traditional marriage arranged by her mother) was dubbed “Mr. 10 Percent” for the huge kickbacks he allegedly collected while his wife was in power. Pakistani women remained largely impoverished and home-bound, with limited access to education and little protection against sex crimes (laws were only tightened by Bhutto’s male successor). Bhutto only became “an icon” after her assassination led people to view her time in power through rose-tinted glasses.
As a recent global study of female leaders has shown, “a country with a woman leader does not signify the end of gender discrimination.” This only becomes possible when women are “equally represented in all facets of society.”
This article is an edited version of “Dynasties’ Daughters and Martyrs’ Widows: Female Leaders and Gender Inequality in Asia,” first published as part of the fifth volume of Asia Society Australia’s Disruptive Asia thought-leadership project focused on women and girls in Asia.