Asian Women on Top

NEW YORK – India’s Indira Gandhi, Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, and Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia – these women leaders dominated South and South East Asia for much of the past four decades. Each belonged to a special class of women whose husbands or fathers were their country’s recognized founding father or longstanding political leader. But, while their dynastic links brought them to power, they were not the sole factor keeping them there.

When first elected, none of these women had any serious professional or political qualifications. For some, this “shortcoming” was seen as an advantage, enabling some of them to project an image of innocence and purity, even martyrdom, as they stood in the place of their deceased husbands or fathers. None was particularly focused on a women’s agenda (at least not in their first terms in office), and studies show that rural women did not fare particularly well under their rule.

But something very different emerged in Asia in 2011. We still have women leaders who came to power at least partly because of their family ties. But they now seem to use their positions with far more confidence in putting women and their concerns squarely at the center of their agendas. And perhaps more importantly, a growing number of women are reaching for the highest political echelons in their countries by dint of their political talents alone.

Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born wife of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of the late Indira Gandhi, became India’s most powerful woman for dynastic reasons but she has consistently demonstrated that she is a shrewd behind-the-scenes political operator.  For her, the main task at hand is to strengthen the Congress Party, which in early 2011 she was elected to lead for an unprecedented fourth term. But she has also expended considerable energy on promoting women, particularly their representation in politics. Indeed, she pushed hard in backing Pratibha Patil to become India’s first woman president.