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In Asia, Itís Progress Not Perfection

By Catherine A. Traywick

The U.S. glass ceiling may boast 18 million cracks, but it has proven exasperatingly resilient. Perhaps that is why we in the U.S. are so quick to write off the progress made by less-developed nations who have elected women to the highest post in their lands long before we even had a viable woman presidential candidate. Defensive about our own lack of progress on the gender front, we tend to eye with disbelief and suspicion those countries that, in spite of shady human rights records and substantial gender gaps, have beaten us to the presidential finish line. 

Take, for example, Monday’s story in The New York Times (which, incidentally, bore a striking resemblance to this 2007 Newsweek piece on the same topic). Both articles assert that while women political leaders are more prevalent in Asia than elsewhere, their momentous ascensions have been due only to powerful familial connections, and both cited a 2005 report, “Dynasties and Female Leadership in Asia,” whose authors made the same claim.

In a way, this claim is correct. All of the women mentioned in the piece in the Times were, or are, related by blood or by marriage to previous heads of state. So were all 12 of the leaders discussed in the 2005 report. But so are many, if not most, heads of state throughout the world, men included. Political power has traditionally derived from both great wealth and nepotism; one only has to look back at our own presidential record (Adamses, Bushes, Roosevelts, Clintons) for confirmation. To point out that women around the world can and do attain power in the same way that men have done for millennia is not news so much as an illustration of the universality of class privilege.

The Times piece also notes how surprising it is to see so many women leaders in a region with so many Muslim states, but adds that “these leaders have done little to advance the causes associated with women’s rights.” If the causes that one associates with women’s rights are those we in the West believe to be fundamental to women’s empowerment--reproductive and sexual freedom, family and workplace equality, etc.--then the author of the article is again, in part, correct. Many nations that boast women presidents and prime ministers do not guarantee some of the basic rights of women, and that is shameful. But it is also not the whole story.

The relationship between a gender-oppressive society and its powerful woman leader, or between a woman leader and her oppressed women constituents, is complicated. Mark R. Thompson, co-author of the 2005 study, has pointed out elsewhere that many women political leaders (among them Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, Indonesia’s Megawati Sukarnoptri, and the Philippines’ Cory Aquino) came to power following the violent political assassinations of their husbands, or had parents who once served as heads of state and now are seen as martyrs of nationalistic struggles. In the aftermath of national tragedy, and often under threat of non-democratic regimes, these women metamorphose into “the ‘mothers’ and ‘sisters’ of suffering nations.”

More than half of the leaders in the 2005 study came to power in this way, and many of those had been homemakers before assuming political office, entering the political arena only under pressure from family, political leaders or the public. So, in a way, these women symbolize a dual martyrdom: Not only do they embody the sacrifices made by their deceased husbands or parents, they also embody the death of their own domestic selves, having reluctantly abandoned their conventional roles as wives and mothers. Though they may have been less qualified than others to serve as presidents and prime ministers, the hope represented by these symbolic women proved to be credentials enough. One Filipina journalist recently articulated this phenomenon when she described Cory Aquino’s candidacy as “forged by a nation so desperate it was willing to settle for a presidential candidate whose only qualification was the dull gleam of a wedding ring.”

That these women didn’t immediately ensure reproductive freedom and workplace equality upon assuming office shouldn’t be surprising. Elected as symbols, they were expected to act as symbols and let powerful men run the government. To their credit, they didn’t do that, but many continued to face strong opposition even within their own ranks for the duration of their terms. This friction no doubt shaped their priorities while in office, but for some those priorities nevertheless included issues like land reform, which would have a significant impact on women’s lives.

The most important contribution of these women, however, is entirely overlooked by both The New York Times and Newsweek: Of the 12 women leaders discussed in the 2005 study, six led democratic revolutions in their countries. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Khaleda Zia (formerly a housewife) led an anti-dictatorship struggle that lasted nine years before she became the first woman prime minister. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the current prime minister of Bangladesh, played an important role in the same struggle. Aung San Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize for leading a democratic struggle in Burma. Megawati Sukarnoputri organized against the non-democratic regime in Indonesia. Benazir Bhutto led a decade-long struggle against a military dictatorship before becoming prime minister of Pakistan. And Cory Aquino (also formerly a housewife) led the people’s uprising that peacefully ousted the autocratic Marcos regime in the Philippines.

The struggle for democracy necessarily precedes other significant issues, but hopefully works in tandem with them. The assertion that women political leaders of Asia have done little to further women’s progress in the region not only presupposes the indicators by which progress ought to be measured, but also presumes that all nations start out at the same place.

Many nationalistic feminist organizations in the Third World have long argued that a women’s movement is impossible without a people’s movement, and vice versa, and the fact that so many women have come forward to lead those people’s movements is certainly not incidental: It speaks volumes about the progress that women leaders in the Third World have made, and are striving to make, for women’s rights. Women leaders who facilitate, promote, or directly push for democratic transitions are doing women’s work, even if that work may not (yet) include the kinds of milestones that we in the West associate with “progress.”

Following the 1986 democratic revolution in the Philippines, a CBS anchor famously said, “We Americans like to think we taught the Filipinos democracy; well, tonight they are teaching the world.” Perhaps instead of judging Third World nations by how much farther they have to go, we could judge them as we prefer to judge ourselves: by the extraordinary number of cracks we’ve put in the ceiling, rather than by the unfortunate fact that the ceiling is still there. 

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