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”
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.