Sisters in Power

Men hog the thrones around the world, but a measure of equality is being felt in a region not known for it's sexual fair play. Nonetheless, more women are coming to power in Asia than anywhere else in the world

By Ron Gluckman/in Jakarta, Colombo, Manila and Hong Kong

WOMEN CAN'T GET A GRIP ON POWER. That's the story around the world. But in Asia, of all places, there's a funny twist to the tale. Here, in this bastion of male dominance, sisters are sure doing it for themselves.

Sri Lanka produced the worldís first democratically-elected leader in 1960, when the post was filled by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, mother of current Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Bandaranaike assumed power after the assassination of her husband. She has served as prime minister three separate times.

In contrast, western societies didnít produce their first female head of state for almost two decades more, until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain. That same year, Simone Weil of France became the first president of the European Union. 

The balance of power shifted greatly in the 1980s, when women took power in Iceland, Norway and Yugoslavia, and, in the 1990s, in Turkey, Ireland, Nicaragua, Panama and Poland.

Yet, three quarters of a century after winning the right to vote, women in America still havenít had the choice of a single female candidate for president from any of the major parties.

Meanwhile, Asia continues to turn to numerous female rulers. Indira Gandhi was twice prime minister of India, and Benazir Bhutto has twice served the same role in Pakistan, becoming the first woman to head a Muslim state. When Sheik Hasina Wazed took over as prime minister of Bangladesh, she succeeded another woman, Khaleda Zia.

True, most female leaders in Asia assume power by way of tragedy and bloodshed, after fathers or husbands are assassinated. Thatís been the case with President Kumaratunga, Bandaranaike, Bhutto, Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, and many others.

But Asia isnít alone in selecting survivors to replace leaders whose term has been cut short. In Israel, Golda Meir was prime minister in the 1950s when few women held high offices anywhere. The first female head of state in the Americas was Juan Peronís widow, Isabel, in Argentina. A half century before any major American city could claim a female mayor, several states had women governors; all succeeded husbands who died in office.

Hereís a look at some of Asiaís leading ladies:

- Corazon Aquino, Former President of the Philippines: Two and one half years after her husbandís assassination on August 21, 1983, the widow of exiled Senator Aquino spearheaded the Peopleís Power movement that toppled Marcos from power. She was burdened with the unflattering tag of "First Housewife" throughout her term.

- Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader in Burma: The only child of independence hero Bogyoke Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947, she lived abroad but returned to Burma in 1988. Suu Kyi led her the opposition party to a landslide victory in elections in 1990, but the military regime refused to relinquish power. Instead, they have kept the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in house arrest.

- Sirimavo Bandaranaike, former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka: She succeeded her husband as Premier in 1960 after he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. But she rose to the role. Ruthless and determined, she dominated the islandís politics for nearly three decades.

- Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan: Nine years after a military regime executed her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, this graduate of Harvard and Oxford was elected to his former post. A decidedly liberal leader in a Muslim republic, she restored democracy to Pakistan in 1988, but her rule was tainted by corruption, and she was twice ousted by presidential decree.

- Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India: Chosen by Congress party bosses in 1966 as a prime minister they thought they could control, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru built a mass following, split the party and established herself as supreme leader. She was assassinated in 1984 by bodyguards.

- Sonia Gandhi, Congress party leader: Italian-born wife of Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as Prime Minister and was himself assassinated in 1991, she stayed out of politics until recently, when party leaders turned to yet another Gandi to try and produce a miracle at the polls.

- Chandrika Kumaratunga, President of Sri Lanka: She shrugged off the political assassinations of both her father and husband, then battled her brother for control of the family party, which she took to victory in 1994.

- Indonesiaís Megawati Sukarnoputri, presidential candidate: Daughter of Sukarno, Indonesiaís first President, she saw her party outpoll all others in the June election, the countryís first free elections since her father was ousted in a 1965 coup. She is likely to head a new government as president by the end of the year.

- Sheik Hasina Wazed, Prime Minister of Bangladesh: Her father President Sheik Mujibur Rahman, her mother and three brothers were murdered during a 1975 military coup. Abroad at the time, Sheik Hasina Wazed returned home in 1981 to take over her fatherís party and won a 1996 election.

- Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister of Bangladesh: Widow of assassinated President Ziaur Rahman, she took over her husbandís party in 1982 and won office in 1991. She has been in political battles with arch-rival Hasina Wazed ever since. 

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as MSNBC, which ran this story as a sidebar to his profile of Megawati Sukarnoputri during the Indonesian elections in late 1999. He has also written about women in power in Asia for the Wall Street Journal, Asia Magazine and the San Francisco Examiner

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