Women in Inherited Positions of Power

From Indira Ghandi to the Indonesian head of state Megawati, in Asia many women play leading roles in politics. Does this mean that women have more political power in Asia than in other countries? Sybille Golte doubts this is the case.

photo: AP
Indonesia's president Megawati Sukarnoputri

​​Women have taken on a significant role in the upcoming elections for the Indonesian parliament and presidency. They represent – not surprisingly – 51 percent of voters, and now for the first time a quota has been introduced for women: all parties are required to make 30 percent of their candidates women.

This is not an easy task for a country in which the military-backed government of General Suharto has a hold on power and the religious Islamic-led parties are winning ground.

But the highest position is occupied by a woman already. President Megawati – the daughter of Sukarno, the charismatic founder of the nation – has been in rule since the last elections. Her sisters Sukmawati and Rahmawati are also trying to get a hold on power as the chairwomen of smaller parties.

And perhaps it comes as no surprise that a daughter of the deposed president General Suharto is also running in the elections, though she has much smaller chances of winning.

A long tradition of women in power

What seems at first glance to be an anomaly is in fact a phenomenon with a long tradition in Asia: widows and daughters of charismatic leaders have historically inherited ruling positions. This happened as early as 1959 in Sri Lanka when Sirimavo Bandaranaike took over her husband’s position as prime minister after he was assassinated.

Indira Gandhi followed suit in India, succeeding her father Nehru. And Corazon Aquino in the Philippines took over for her husband Ninoy after he was killed. In Pakistan Benazir Bhutto eventually came to power after her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was deposed and then executed. In Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina Wajed took over for her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the nation who was likewise assassinated.

Also worth mentioning are Sonia Gandhi, who was an apolitical housewife until her husband Rajiv Gandhi was murdered, and Aung San Suu Kyii, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is the daughter of the Burmese independence leader Aung San.

The triumph of feminism

Does the advance of women in leading political positions in Asia signal the triumph of feminism and equality? Hardly. Without famous fathers or husbands, women have rather poor chances of entering political positions in Asia. And the fact that women have served as leaders has not improved the general situation for women in Asian society.

In all Asian countries women have been the ones who have lost out the most during economic crises. They have been hit hardest by unemployment and inflation and the problems resulting from these, such as domestic violence in families or health problems.

Women’s rise to positions of political power can be understood as a political strategy used by parties in power. In the young democracies of Asia, dynastic structures are still present. The famed politicians who led independence movements and often lost their lives doing so have become martyrs. Their charisma is linked to their names. In the power vacuum following an assassination – or during elections – pulling out the trump card of a heroic name has been very successful.

The instrumentalization of women

But why does this happen with daughters and widows more often than with sons? This can be explained by the fact that the party politicians who pull the strings to create the new queens know that they can more easily manipulate a woman raised in a traditional family.

The new women rulers are, after all, usually women who previously had little say in politics. And traditionally women must honor and obey their fathers. They are thus the next best thing when it comes to continuing the powers that be.

Once they are in high office, the women who have inherited power do little for their fellow women beyond making symbolic gestures. This is hardly surprising given that they do not represent the politics of the women’s movement and have not fought to have a greater influence in politics. Power has simply dropped into their laps.

Thus there is no reason for them to be sensitized to issues concerning equality. One of the first political moves of President Megawati when she came to power in Indonesia, for example, was to get rid of the Ministry for Women.

What these women rulers are able to create out of the legacy of their fathers and husbands is thus not a question of gender, but of individual personalities. Indira Gandhi was undoubtedly an exemplary figure in the history of her country.

President Megawati in Indonesia still must prove herself, while Cory Aquino mostly squandered her chances for making a real difference in the Philippines. Ultimately, true equality will only be reached in Asian democracies when nameless women share power with men in all political institutions.

Sybille Golte © DEUTSCHE WELLE/ DW-WORLD.DE 2004
Translation from English: Allison Brown

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.