Dynasties’ Daughters and Martyrs’ Widows: Female Leaders and Gender Inequality in Asia
Of the thirteen national female leaders of state in contemporary Asia, only one has no direct connection to a notable political dynasty - Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen.
The other dozen female prime ministers, presidents or de facto leaders who have exercised national political power (and not 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 their husbands, brothers or fathers.
These men had led independence struggles, ruling parties, or opposition movements with many of them facing political persecution or were even assassinated. Women dynasts such as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and State Councilor 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 female head of government, or less than seven per cent. While this represents an increase over previous years, it still means it will take at least another 130 years (!) for parity in male and female national leadership to be achieved, according to United Nations estimates.
These women have led Asian countries that mostly have high levels of gender inequality. The Global Gender Index calculates the gap between women and men in health, education, economy and politics. In the 2021 report, except the Philippines, countries with female dynastic leaders were ranked near the bottom, raising the question of how these women leaders were able to break through this (very low) glass ceiling in their rise to power.
Traditional religious practices are also often seen as an obstacle to female leadership. There are significant religious-based discriminatory practices in the predominantly Buddhist countries of Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand which have had female dynastic leaders. There have been two female dynastic leaders in the Catholic Philippines where conservative religious teachings limit gender equality. Women have also come to power in the predominantly Islamic countries of Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan where, as Siti Musdah Mulia points out, it is “no secret that religion and state ‘conspire’ against women.” Why have there been so many female dynastic leaders in Asia despite seemingly hostile cultural contexts?
In addition, once female leaders came to power, they often faced fierce resistance – civilian protests, military coups, or assassination. Finally, it is striking how few women’s rights initiatives these leaders have undertaken, with little if any improvement in gender equality in the countries they have ruled.
Why so many Asian female dynastic leaders?
Female leaders’ succession to political power was organised by the followers of the deceased or persecuted male politician who often had to push these usually previously apolitical women into leadership roles. A dynastic successor is well positioned to unite a political party, faction, or movement behind them that might splinter after the leaders’ untimely death. In terms of popular appeal, it was of great advantage to be able to claim the political inheritance of charismatic leaders who were often seen as political martyrs.
Crucial to understanding this female “political inheritance” is that it was aided, not harmed by traditional stereotypes in patriarchal societies, as Linda Richter has argued. As women, these leaders could be portrayed as largely apolitical — virtuous alternatives to corrupt Machiavellian men. A male dynast successor was more likely to be judged on his own merits, making it difficult for him to inherit the mantle of charisma from a father or brother to whom he might be compared unfavourably. But viewed through the lens of traditional gender roles, women leaders could serve as political avatars without being directly juxtaposed with their fathers or husbands.
Women have thus benefited from their association with traditional female roles, which is why they were often referred to as “mother” (e.g., Indonesia’s Megawati Sukarnoputri), “sister” (Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto), or “aunt” (the Philippines’ Corazon Aquino) by their supporters. For those women leaders who led or played a major role in democratic opposition movements where they faced repression, sometimes over decades, this gendered moral capital increased further, as Claudia Derichs , Andrea Fleschenberg and Momoyo Hüstebeck have argued.
The case of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar illustrates how gender stereotyping can sometimes prove a political plus. Suu Kyi, who had been living abroad with her British husband and two children, was in Myanmar to care for her gravely ill mother when she was recruited to lead opposition to military rule in August 1988. Aware of her potential popularity as the daughter of independence hero Aung San, oppositionists saw her as a means to win mass support for a fledgling movement attempting to organize nationally over a short period. Many Burmese had grown up with Aung San’s picture on their walls showing he was very much alive in the country’s national historical lore. Suu Kyi’s gendered inherited charisma was initially her greatest political asset and helped keep a fractious opposition united. As Fleschenberg has shown, despite being put under several periods of house arrest for nearly two decades, Suu Kyi’s appeal to ordinary Burmese has never waned, making her the unchallenged center of anti-regime protest (with Suu Kyi briefly becoming the country’s de facto leader as State Counsellor from 2016-2021 between two periods of military rule, most recently through the February 2021 coup).
Of course, these were no ordinary women but all members of prominent political clans. As Nankyung Choi concludes, this shows that in these Asian cases “patriarchal political culture” has not posed “an obstacle to women from privileged families.” Social class trumped gender for these elite women leaders.
The downfall or discrediting of female successors
Female dynastic leaders have been jailed (South Korean president Park Geun-hye and Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo), toppled by military coups (Suu Kyi in Myanmar and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand), and even assassinated (Gandhi in India and Bhutto in Pakistan). It was often the same qualities that helped these women to rise to national leadership that contributed to their political downfall. The emphasis of the virtuous character of traditional female roles in patriarchal societies helped women rise to leadership positions. After taking power, however, being a woman suddenly became a distinct handicap. Despite their allies’ (and sometimes even their husbands’) hypocritical praise during their ascent to leadership, once in office they often called on them to restrict themselves to a symbolic role, with actual authority delegated to men.
In the Philippines, after toppling dictator Ferdinand Marcos to become president in 1986, Aquino faced two deeply antagonistic male rivals in her own cabinet, including her vice president, Salvador Laurel who demanded Aquino make him “virtual head of state”. Defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile launched a series of military coup attempts, with Laurel openly supporting one revealingly called “God Save the Queen”. This would have returned Aquino to her “proper” role as a woman, as a mere symbol, not the real holder of political power, which, as the ideology of patriarchy made clear, was a man’s job.
In addition, charges of political corruption put a quick end to several Asian women leaders’ near monopoly on “moral capital”. While several were accused of malfeasance when in power and two imprisoned after leaving office, no case was as spectacular as that of South Korea’s Park who was stripped of the presidency in 2016 and given a long term jail sentence in 2017 (she was pardoned in 2021) after mass protests following a major scandal. Earlier in her political career, she had been seen as the “incarnation of her father”, president and dictator Park Chung-hee, which provided her with “legendary status among conservatives” and made her the “Queen of Elections” in which she led her otherwise unpopular party to over-perform electorally. But during her presidency as details of bribery, corrupt connections and extensive privilege emerged, Hyejin Kim argues her image morphed into that of a spoiled “princess”, with only 4 per cent of South Koreans expressing support in the end for her tragic presidency.
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 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 now established what Christine Fair has termed “one-woman rule” in which she rigs elections and persecutes opponents, including Zia who has been sentenced to a long jail term. In Myanmar, 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 UN’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 greater gender equality. Choi argues this shows a “stubborn unwillingness to challenge the prevailing patriarchal gender ideology, explaining their disappointing record in improving other women’s rights and status”. As Susan Blackburn has shown in Indonesia, Megawati, who was widely celebrated as symbolizing women’s advancement in the country when she became the country’s first female president in 2001, was much less pro-active on women’s issues compared than her male predecessor President Wahid Abdurrahman. Although Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike was proud of being the world’s first modern female leader, she put little emphasis on reducing gender inequalities, with the number of women politicians not increasing significantly during her tenure.
Even the woman credited with having done the most for women’s rights while in office, Pakistan’s Bhutto, left behind a distinctly mixed record. As prime minister, Bhutto was celebrated when she spoke at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, as the first woman ever elected to head an Islamic nation. Advocating for women’s rights of women in a predominantly Islamic society, she became “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 in which feudal-like conditions were still common and in which 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). According to Pakistani activist Unaiza Malik, “women benefited very little under her”. Bhutto only became “an icon” after her assassination, leading people to view her through “rose-tinted glasses rather than remembering the corruption charges, her lack of achievements or how much she was manipulated.”
Isolated at the top
In Asia, a dozen female leaders who were the widows, wives, sisters or daughters of assassinated or disgraced male leaders took power “over his dead body” – to use Diane Kincaid’s phrase about widows who succeeded their late husbands in the U.S. Congress – or at least under the sway of their father or husband’s political legacy. As the widows, wives or daughters of popular politicians – often leaders of independence struggles martyred through assassination or political persecution – they were seen to have inherited their charisma. As women 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 in order to rescue it from crisis. Viewed through this traditional gender lens (which they often instrumentalised) 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.
Once in office, however, the very qualities that had helped propel them 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 they had expected these female leaders to reign not rule. Having contrasted themselves with corrupt male Machiavellians, women leaders were held to high moral standards which they were often unable to uphold, with many female leaders engulfed in corruption scandals. Their inherited claims to represent the nation sometimes led them to ignore international human rights standards and democratic procedures, surprising one-time foreign supporters. Dynastic female leaders in Asia have been accused, not always unfairly, of ruling according their own familial interests and claiming to be the sole legitimate representatives of the nation.
These dynastic leaders’ willingness to assume traditional gender roles also helps explain why few of them fought strongly for greater gender equality. More generally, as Farida Jalalzai has shown in a global study of female leaders, “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.”
Mark R. Thompson is professor and head, Department of Asian and International Studies and Director, Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong.
An edited version of this essay appeared in The Diplomat on 24 February 2022.