Ever since Ms Droupadi Murmu was catapulted into the national limelight after being picked as the NDA’s presidential nominee, my mind is beseiged by one constant thought. It is the juxtaposition of women being elected as the head of state in a country and the state of feminism in said country.
Among examples of current women heads of state that readily come to mind are Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Sanna Marin of Finland and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. Kamala Harris deserves a mention, even though she is not the head of state in a country that countenances as being the champion of women’s rights and prides itself on having broken the glass ceiling repeatedly.
The United States of America, which likes to consider itself as the repository of democratic principles and moderator of the world’s morals has, till date, not elected a single female head of state. Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton tried, and they tried hard, but failed.
India, on the other hand, despite its discouraging and sometimes downright appalling, record of crimes against women, entrenched misogyny and casual sexism, has regularly elected women heads of nation and provincial states. From Indira Gandhi to Mayawati and from Pratibha Patil to J Jayalalitha, India has been electing women to positions of power locally, regionally and nationally since gaining independence from the British in 1947.
Reverting to the apparent contradiction of having a robust advocacy infrastructure and according women all implied freedom of choice — sartorial, sexual, political — yet being unable to name one female head of state, the US cuts a sorry figure and cannot present adequate justification for the same.
After all, along with Europe, the US has presented itself as a role model for feminism and women’s emancipation. It has sought to play a leading role in universal adult suffrage, civil rights, women’s reproductive rights and their employability. Had it not been for the controversial tenures of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, the UK could have come a close second in this apparent mismatch between ideology/principles and practice/discharge of women’s rights.
It’s not that there is a dearth of capable women leaders in the US. But what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 is telling because then it appears that you can’t win even when you are qualified, capable and smart and also points to a deeply-ingrained sexism in US society.
Something similar and similarly appalling transpired when Senator Elizabeth Warren was cast out of the Democratic primary in March 2020. With Warren out, it was clear that there was something going on in US politics at the grassroots level that made such incidents almost commonplace. With this decision, the voters also sent out the signal that they rejected her beliefs; they conveyed that her ideas didn’t matter as much as her femininity.
In effect, the message the world gets from this treatment of women in politics in the US is that all the ‘progress’ and ‘liberation’ attributed to and bandied about by American women when they interact with women from the rest of the world is possibly just a lot of hot air.
Equality, social justice, reproductive rights and political influence — all this might appear to be taken for granted by women in the US. Yet, the truth is that these women are highly likely to be white and belonging to a certain economic segment. To be truly effective, feminism needs to forge solidarity with women of colour, minorities and immigrants.
Also, what does it really mean, to want and to have a woman president? Is ‘making history’ the sole motivator here? Or is something more than representation is being considered and offered?
Is it not a fact that Benazir Bhutto, as Prime Minister of Pakistan, was equally (compared to other, male leaders) hawkish over the issue of Kashmir and what that meant for the concomitant military, intelligence and political decision-making regarding Kashmir? What about Margaret Thatcher and how history views her — as a majoritarian figure ready to do the establishment’s bidding, with hardly a thought for the women and the working class of Britain in the 1980s? Even Indira Gandhi, despite all the accolades reserved for the military intervention into erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) that she spearheaded, could only do so much towards making women’s emancipation an issue of policy and radically altering patriarchal perceptions of the worth and ‘honour’ associated with women, their career choices and sexual decisions.
In order to better understand the dichotomy of having sartorial freedom without accompanying sexual, political and electoral rights, one only needs to take a look at the ‘Political Parity Score’ of the US (41) as against 36 for India and 74 for Costa Rica. Even Senegal — at 49 and Tunisia — at 43, fared better than arguably the world’s most powerful nation.
Here’s a list of the current female heads of state or government across the world. If there is none in the US, UK and Australia, well, that’s indicative of a unique strain of misogyny, aversion to women’s emancipation and deep-rooted, if innocuous, patriarchal belief systems, which it might take us women decades to traverse and navigate successfully.
|Rose Christiane Raponda
|Saara Kuugongelwa Amadhila
|Bidhya Devi Bhandari
|Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa
|Samia Suluhu Hassan
|Victoire Tomegah Dogbé
|Trinidad and Tobago
|Najla Bouden Romdhane