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World’s first female prime minister

How Sirimavo Bandaranaike shaped South-Asian politics

Feature Desk || shiningbd

Published: 17:42, 28 January 2021   Update: 17:52, 28 January 2021
How Sirimavo Bandaranaike shaped South-Asian politics

Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first female prime minister, on July 21, 1960.

With Kamala Harris assuming office as the United States’ first female vice president this month, conversations have been renewed over the role of women leaders in politics – particularly in South Asia, given Harris’s Indian heritage.

South Asia has seen many female politicians and even elected them as heads of government, from Indira Gandhi the first and only woman prime minister of India to Benazir Bhutto the first female head of state of a Muslim country and twice premier of Pakistan despite being home to largely patriarchal and male-dominated societies.

These women leaders, however, have strong dynastic backgrounds that boosted their political careers. There are also questions as to whether their tenures have been any different from their male counterparts’ or have led to any significant changes on the ground concerning women’s rights and their better representation in government and society.

A recent online cross-border discussion hosted by Himal Southasian shed light on female representation in South Asian countries and discussed how women leaders’ ideologies and governance have shaped politics. Speakers also talked about the challenges women face today as leaders and political workers in these countries. The discussion was moderated by Indian journalist, writer, and editor Luxmi Murthy.

“Do women in politics mean having women from dynasties?” asked Murthy as she initiated the discussion, affirming that this has been quite the notion of women in politics in South Asia. “Does dynasties alone explain the presence of these women that made it to the top?” she continued while asking panelists what other factors they think play a role in the electoral process, including at the regional and provincial levels in South Asian countries.

Murthy kicked off the discussion by giving the example of Indian politicians Mayawati, former chief minister of India’s Uttar Pradesh state, and J.Jayalalithaa, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, which could be seen “making a difference.”

In Bangladesh, women have played an important political role since the country’s struggle for independence. “Women in Bangladesh were involved in the resistance movements [when the country was a part of Pakistan], including the language and student’s movements for a long time and then in the 1971 war,” said human rights activist and scholar Hameeda Hossain from Bangladesh.

“Women were active and raising issues that were particular to them and, partly as a result of that, Article 28 was included in the 1972 constitution that talks about gender equality between men and women.”

Hossain emphasized the role of women’s rights organizations in recording women’s demands and voicing their positions in the street, underlying their importance for social and political change for women.

“The women’s movement in Bangladesh has taken forward steps and have particularly stressed legal reforms of various kinds,” she said, adding that one thing that women had wanted was to be elected directly as a result of votes from the people instead of selection by their leaders, indicating that some of the processes is dynastic in nature.

Talking about Pakistan, academic and activist Neelam Hussain said that South Asia, including Pakistan, has a long history of having women in high power and holding iconic positions, yet their place in the public imagination is not reflected in the condition of women in general.

“It seems to be a strange kind of contradiction… the women who come in on a dynastic basis or as icons from well-placed political families, to begin with, are not marking a point of departure from normal patriarchal practice,” she underscored, adding that they come in as the “daughters” – giving the examples of Bhutto, Gandhi, and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh – and are “surrogates” for the men who they are representing and to whom they owe their identity.

“The fact that they forge their own place later is another matter, but they come as the part of a patriarchal, patrilineal continuum and then they are set apart as signifiers of their families, class, or caste and separated from the generality of women,” she contended.

These positions, however, still don’t spare women leaders from patriarchal and sexist attitudes, and the kind of abuse ordinary women are vulnerable to.