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Stabroek News

Women leaders in a violent world
published: Sunday | January 6, 2008

Robert Buddan, Contributor

South Asia has produced more female heads of state than any other region. It has taken special circumstances for women like Benazir Bhutto and her regional compatriots to rise to power. Bhutto though, typifies the struggle of women to use democracy to gain power since authoritarian institutions like the military and the Church are male-dominated and are bolstered by prejudices against women.

Benazir was the only female Prime Minister of a Muslim country. Fundamentalist Muslims oppose women leadership of government and even fundamentalist Christians are not likely to support Hillary Clinton in the United States. To make matters worse, militarisation in those countries only strengthens male-dominanted institutions like the military and the war against terror seems to strengthen fundamentalists more as well. All of these factors conspired in the death of Benazir Bhutto.

Female political leaders in Asia have come to power under special circumstances. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of India's political founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru. She was assassinated in 1984. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the widow of Solomon Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka who was assassinated in 1959. She was Prime Minister three times and was the first woman in the world to be Prime Minister. Chandrika is Sirimavo's daughter, and she was president of Sri Lanka up to 2005. Her husband, a politician, was assassinated in 1988. Begum Khaleda Zia was Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Her husband, Zia-ur-Rahman was president but fell to an assassin in 1981. Sheik Hasina was Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was president and was assassinated in 1975.

Close to government

There have been others who have come close to government leadership. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burma's independence leader who was assassinated in 1947. She was Prime Minister-elect in 1990, but detained since, without being able to assume power. She has won prestigious international peace prizes. Sonia Gandhi is head of India's ruling party whose mother-in-law, Indira and husband, Rajiv, were both assassinated having been Prime Ministers. She has chosen not to be Prime Minister of her ruling party's government.

Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of former Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged by the military in 1979. Benazir was Prime Minister twice, the first woman to be Prime Minister of a Muslim country. She was on the verge of being Prime Minister a third time, being Pakistan's most popular leader according to polls two weeks before her assassination shortly before elections were scheduled. She had just returned to Pakistan in October from self-imposed exile and had faced one assassination attempt since. She was placed under house arrest until worldwide condemnation of Pakistan's emergency rule forced the military to free her. Her brothers had been killed in mysterious circumstances, probably political murders and her controversial husband had been jailed for corruption. She left three children, one of them now succeeding her has head of her party.

Inherited power

It has sometimes been said that these women merely inherited their power from their famous fathers or husbands. Benazir proved this was not true. She had leadership characteristics of her own. She was a university student leader at Oxford, very intelligent, a great debater, very articulate, patriotic, fearless, and close to the poor. She knew the danger she faced going back to Pakistan, but felt that Pakistan's future lay in defeating extremism, both religious and political. Her family had known violence in a violent country ruled by the military for half of its 60 years of independence. Her father's party, the Pakistan People's Party was always pro-democratic and Benazir had vowed to her father that she would carry on his work. She was opposed by the military and the Islamic leaders and there was even opposition to her in her family. Her mother wanted her brother to succeed her father. Even her issues - food, clothing and shelter - were not the issues that the elite bothered about.

World politics

Against these odds it was remarkable that Benazir Bhutto had achieved what she had but for the same reasons, not surprising that she had been killed before she could achieve more. Bhutto's struggle for social democracy was never the priority designed for Pakistan by the grand schemers of world politics. The logic of cold war politics was that if India leaned to the Soviets, Pakistan should be made to lean to the U.S. So, if India developed nuclear power, Pakistan must be equipped with the same to balance Indian's power. Then after the Cold War and especially after 9/11, Pakistan was used as a buffer against Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan.

Billions of dollars went to the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment and very little to the poor and to support democracy. Now, even the Americans are not sure that the Pakistani military was serious in fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, India preserved its democracy and has built the second fastest growing economy in the world. Pakistan is left without a democracy, with hardly an economy, and with much military power, but little people power.

Up to her end, the U.S. still favoured the failed military regime in Pakistan over the democratic forces represented by Bhutto and her party. America's priority is still al-Qaeda and the Taliban, not the Pakistani people. American political analysts and presidential candidates are even saying that the U.S. must continue to support the military because Pakistan is heading for a humanitarian and strategic crisis and might become a failed state. In other words, the transition to democracy must be postponed and so too must help for the people while America puts its foreign policy interests first.

Sets up more assassination

This is the kind of logic that got Pakistan into this situation in the first place. It sets up a situation for more assassination of democrats and for continued desperation by the poor, which will drive them to further extremism. This is exactly why Pakistan has failed. India, in contrast, has never relied on American strategic logic or become dependent on its military aid. Pakistan has and that is its real tragedy. Benazir Bhutto represented the best option for Pakistan's fight against extremism through democracy and social welfare. Now there is no obvious replacement for her leaving a political vacuum and a country without external or internal balance.

The women leaders of South Asia exist in an authoritarian and violent culture where the military and extremist religious and political forces have failed and where international politics have largely relied on those very forces for foreign-policy purposes. The tragedy of the Bhutto family in Pakistan politics is comparable to that of the Gandhis in India and the Kennedys in the United States, all providing leaders who have fallen at the hands of extremists.

Pakistan is scheduled to hold elections in February. The military regime is very unpopular, and there is no leader as popular as Benazir, who was to give the people the option of voting for someone they felt stood for them. She felt the elections would be rigged. What Pakistan and the world must ensure is that democracy does not die with Mrs. Bhutto.

Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona. Email: Robert.

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