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What Caused the Patriarchal Societies of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to Accept the Women as Leaders?

By Khaled Ahmed

May 4, 2019

Anna A Suvorova has written an extraordinary book, Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship, and Power in South Asia (OUP 2019), affording us a closer look at the women who served as prime ministers in our region. In each case, she opens the door to a realistic analysis of what caused the patriarchal societies of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to accept them as leaders, even to invest them with charisma. There is the invariable factor of violence and suffering as “daughters and mothers” playing their role on top of the political order of their states.

Dynasties emerged before or after the strongwomen of South Asia took control. Death established the dynasties where women got to climb to the top because of an instinctive public reverence of the assassinated fathers. Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the “founder” of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-75), had to live down the assassination of her father, mother, brothers, sisters-in-law, and nephews (20 people altogether) in August 1975 by a group of officers of the Bangladesh army.

Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by the army in 1977 and killed by another general, Zia ul-Haq. Bangladesh saw a coup-on-top-of-a-coup, led by General Khaled Mosharraf. But after three days, Mosharraf was killed in another coup. General Ziaur Rahman, later president, survived 21 attempted army coups between 1977 and 1980 and was killed in Chittagong in 1981.

In 1977, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan was toppled by a military coup staged by his chosen army chief General Zia-ul-Haq. A servile judiciary allowed the general to hang Bhutto in 1979. Bhutto had sent his two sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, out of the country, thus making the onus of his charisma fall on his daughter Benazir. She too was killed by a suicide-bomber while General Pervez Musharraf ruled Pakistan.

Sonia Gandhi — Italian by birth — had to face a region getting more sinister by the day. She was to be one of the widows that came to power indirectly in South Asia. Her husband, the dynastic heir of the Nehru family, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, died in 1991 at the hands of a Tamil terrorist. But the transfer of dynastic charisma got her party the Congress to win again despite the malicious opposition charge of “foreigner” against her.

A Buddhist monk killed the born non-Buddhist — but later-converted from Anglican to Buddhist — Solomon Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1959, leaving behind his widow, Sirimavo with three children. She was often called “the weeping widow” — a pun on “weeping willow” — by her myriad ill-wishers. Her daughter, Chandrika, after losing her father also became a widow after her husband, actor Vijaya Kumaratunga, was killed by a Sinhalese extremist in 1988.

In the patriarchal world of South Asia, women have to act tough or risk being toppled by men. In a sense, this applies universally, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was often said to be “the only man in the cabinet”. Sheikh Hasina is authoritarian and harsh, bordering on cruel. She got her father’s killers hanged, vanquished the opposition, has the army under her thumb and has a majority in parliament touching two-thirds. Sirimavo Bandaranaike too had to act tough despite being a Buddhist. After her election as prime minister, she made Sinhalese the official language of the country (in place of English), which alienated the Tamil minority.

Why do women rulers act tough? Suvorova has this diagnosis: “The male majority considered women to be inherently apolitical, passive, easily swayed, eager for compromise, incompetent, subject to the influence of their male entourage, and in a word, marionettes controlled by puppeteers present among advisors in the party hierarchy or cabinet.”

Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan.