Feburary issue 2006

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 18 years ago

The day will come when a woman’s elevation to the post of head of state or government will be considered unremarkable, no more (or less) significant than if she were a man. When the proportion of female leaders, parliamentarians and CEOs will reflect, roughly, their demographic strength. When sexism will seem so last century, simply a bad memory associated with less civilised.

That day could be a long time coming, but there have lately been some encouraging developments on the leadership front, notably a further whittling down of the impression — invariably conjured up by male politicians on shaky ground — that many people are uncomfortable about the idea of a woman at the helm.

To cite but one example, last month that notion has suffered a serious setback in Chile, which has long been considered the most socially conservative and stolidly Catholic country in Latin America. Faced with a choice between Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist and an agnostic who also happens to be the twice-divorced mother of three (divorce was illegal in Chile until 2004), and Sebastian Pinera, a conservative billionaire businessman, Chileans opted decisively for the former.

What’s more, Bachelet has promised that when she takes over as president next month, half her ministers will be women. Not only is it hard to imagine the supposedly more established democracies of Europe emulating that practice in a hurry, it is also difficult to envisage a woman with Bachelet’s credentials winning endorsement as a presidential or prime ministerial candidate from a mainstream party in most parts of the developed world.

Chileans took Bachelet to their hearts while she served as the minister of health and, later, defence in the government of Ricardo Lagos, evidently charmed by her panoply of talents, her warmth and her sense of humour, and quite possibly mindful of the fact that her father, an air force general loyal to the government of Salvador Allende, died of torture at the hands of the Pinochet regime. Michelle and her mother were also subjected to the depredations reserved by the military junta for dissidents.

Bachelet is not the first woman to achieve such prominence in South America, but she is the first one who does not happen to be a well-known wife or widow.

Meanwhile, half-way across the world, in the benighted republic of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was last week inaugurated as president after becoming the first African woman to be elected head of state. Several African heads of state attended the inauguration. George Bush, as a gesture of goodwill, sent his wife — albeit in the company of Condoleezza Rice.

Coincidentally, Rice has figured in speculation about the 2008 presidential contest in the United States, as a possible Republican candidate to face Democrat Hillary Clinton. An all-female race would indeed be a revolutionary leap for the US (although it’s very difficult to imagine either of them delivering anything other than a conservative presidency, possibly even more gung-ho than before in order to prove that women can be as warlike as any W, X, Y or Z), given that, with the exception of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, no woman has figured even as a running mate in any context.

That, of course, may or may not come to pass — I have my doubts — but Johnson-Sirleaf’s likely tribulations as inheritor of the Liberian mantle are all too real. Her country has been subjected to a series of civil wars since the early 1980s, and the state of the nation can be gauged from the fact that there is no running water or electricity in the capital, Monrovia, while the level of unemployment is said to be as high as 80 per cent.

In the circumstances, Liberians are likely to have made the best possible choice in electing Johnson-Sirleaf, a seasoned politician with a relatively clean past who once earned the nickname Iron Lady. That tag is nowadays readily attached to successful women politicians everywhere, regardless of whether or not they bear much resemblance, in terms of ideology or style, to Margaret Thatcher. In the case of Bachelet, it’s far too obvious that she does not fit the mould, but Angela Merkel, who took over last year as Germany’s first female chancellor, could not escape the epithet.

It is something of a shame that Thatcher’s name has become a byword for fierce female leadership, because although she undoubtedly was a strong leader, she certainly isn’t the only woman whose relationship with power was distinguished by a take-no-prisoners approach. After all, her contemporaries and near-contemporaries included Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir.

During her 11-year tenure as the British prime minister, at least some of the opposition to Thatcher, both within and outside the Conservative Party, had sexist undertones — and sometimes overtones, as exemplified by the slogan “Ditch the Bitch.” But much of it was ideological, as she took the axe to the welfare state and teamed up with Ronald Reagan (despite being all too aware of his intellectual deficiencies) to take on the “evil empire.” The parallels with Tony Blair hardly need to be spelt out, and it’s not surprising that Thatcher regards him, rather than the nondescript John Major, as her true heir.

No woman has ever come within a whisker of claiming the leadership of the British Labour Party, incidentally. Nor has France ever boasted a female president, although that might change next year if the Socialist Party puts up the popular Segolene Royal as a candidate. Overall, female leadership in Europe is perhaps best exemplified by Gro Harlem Brundtland, who has served thrice as the prime minister of Norway. Vigdis Finnbogadottir, meanwhile, served as the directly elected president of Iceland for 16 years. And when Mary Robinson resigned after serving as the president of the Republic of Ireland for nearly seven years, her successor was Mary McAleese.

That may not seem like such a novelty to the citizens of Bangladesh where, since the end of the Ershad dictatorship in 1990, power has alternated between Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed. The same thing happened in New Zealand in 1999, when Helen Clark took over from Jenny Shipley. In fact, for a time the four most significant political posts in New Zealand — prime minister, leader of the opposition, chief justice and governor-general — were all held by women.

It is, perhaps, important to make a distinction between women who succeed in politics after choosing it as a career and rising through the ranks, and those who regard it as their inheritance. The world’s first female prime minister, for instance, was the widow of Sri Lanka’s Solomon Bandaranaike. She was followed six years later by Indira Gandhi, he daughter of India’s first prime minister. Khaleda Zia is the widow of a military dictator and Hasina Wajed the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father.

Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to serve as a Muslim country’s head of government, is the daughter of Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister. Corazon Aquino’s husband was a prominent Philippine opposition figure in the Marcos years and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s father was himself president of the Philippines before Ferdinand Marcos took over in 1965. Likewise, Megawati Sukarnoputri’s father ruled Indonesia for more than 20 years after it won independence. Even Aung San Suu Kyi — who should have become the prime minister of Burma in 1990, after her party won a landslide, but has spent most of the years since then under house arrest at the mercy of a military junta — owed some of her initial prominence to the fact that her father was once hailed as the hero of Burmese independence, before he was assassinated in 1947.

Does any of this matter? Do dynasties symbolise political immaturity, a lack of confidence in democratic institutions? A qualified yes would, perhaps, best answer both questions. One must beware of generalisations. There’s little virtue in nepotism, of course. At the same time, a link to politics through marriage or by ancestry can hardly be construed as a disqualification in a democratic set-up, notwithstanding the monarchical and feudal antecedents of the trend.

It is a different matter that political parties seldom prosper under the inordinate influence of a particular family. India’s Congress is a case in point: it could well be argued that Sanjay Gandhi was his mother’s greatest weakness. Fortunately, it was his less brash elder brother, Rajiv, who became the third-generational torchbearer. And when Congress returned to power in 2004, his Italian-born widow, Sonia, was widely expected to become prime minister. She had the good sense to resist the pressure. But the saga of the Congress party’s relationship with the Nehru-Gandhis is far from over.

Much the same could be said about the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Bandaranaikes. Chandrika Kumaratunga is not only the first woman to have served as both prime minister and president of a country, she is also the first to have ruled in tandem with her mother, Srimavo Bandaranaike — and the first leader whose parents have both served as prime ministers. But history will tend to judge her on her record rather than her genes.

Similarly, when Bangladeshis vote for the parties led by Hasina Wajed or Khaleda Zia, chances are they no longer have Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or General Ziaur Rahman in mind. If the ghost of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto helped to propel the PPP to victory in 1988, its influence was marginal in 1993.

Benazir Bhutto’s two terms in office are widely reckoned to have been disastrous — or, at best, wasted opportunities. But her record cannot logically be twisted into an argument against women’s leadership — not even exclusively in the Pakistani context. After all, to refute that argument, it is only necessary to show that in a given situation, women are no worse than men. And that’s where Nawaz Sharif comes in handy. Quite apart from his appalling record in office, one ought not to forget that he and other PML(N) leaders plumbed the vilest depths of sexism during election campaigns, employing the sort of language that would, in another country, have led to the disqualification of candidates, or at least the depletion of their vote banks. Besides, notwithstanding all her flaws, foibles and follies, Benazir at least has something in her past that she can justifiably be proud of: her bold opposition to Zia-ul-Haq’s atrocious military rule.

If, after all that’s been said, anyone is wondering whether women make better rulers than men, it must be pointed out to them that they are asking the wrong question. To ask whether, for better or for worse, they bring “womanly qualities” to politics, is to fall in a sexist trap. What, after all, are “womanly qualities,” and how many of them did, for instance, Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir or Madeleine Albright possess?

Of course female presidents and prime ministers are perfectly capable of being weak, indecisive and incompetent. Just as weak, indecisive and incompetent as some male leaders, in fact. Women are equally capable of combining forcefulness and determination with diplomacy and sharp intelligence. Just like some men. That’s the whole point: individuals ought to be judged on the basis of their talents, not their sex. That rule applies, of course, in all walks of life, not just in politics.

A large number of countries — with Asia at the forefront — have experienced rule by women. None of them is any the worse for wear exclusively on that account. A far larger number are yet to follow suit. That will happen gradually: West Asia will probably be the last region on earth to break out of the straitjacket of a male monopoly (it takes a particularly spectacular leap of the imagination to envisage a woman, heavily veiled or otherwise, at the helm of Saudi Arabia, but stranger things have happened). Well, before that, it should become reasonably common for women in most countries to have their fair share of seats in parliament (without any need for a condescending “quota”) and a fair go at the top job, to the extent that an electoral triumph for a Tansu Ciller or a Michelle Bachelet will raise neither eyebrows nor unrealistic expectations.

That sort of parity is still a long way off. But we’re getting there.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.