Why having female PM isn't a sign of "progress"

"I think most Australians desire leaders who are strong and tell us the truth.  But we should also want them to be ...

"I think most Australians desire leaders who are strong and tell us the truth. But we should also want them to be flexible enough to adapt to a changing world."

A few years ago BG (Before Gillard), I got into a friendly argument (OK, we nearly ruined Christmas), with a close friend who insisted that feminism was obsolete and that even Muslim culture was no longer ‘that patriarchal’ since some Muslim countries had already had a female leader.

She was referring to Benazir Bhutto, the first (and only) female prime minister of Pakistan who attained leadership in 1988 but was not the first female head of government. That honour went to Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’s Sirimavo Bandarnaike in 1960. India’s Indira Gandhi followed in 1966. Indeed, South Asia, a region traditionally hostile to women’s rights has seen more elected female leaders than any other. Bangladesh, Indonesia (both Muslim majority nations) and the Philippines have all had at least one.

By contrast, Australia didn’t get its first female PM until 2010 and Britain in 1979. The US has yet to elect a female vice-president let alone president.

Former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, speaks to media oafter being freed from house arrest in 2007. (Photo by Warrick ...

Former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, speaks to media oafter being freed from house arrest in 2007. (Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images)

As someone who grew up in a Muslim family that was part of a very close-knit (read: nosey and gossipy) community, I baulked at being informed by an outsider that my own cultural background wasn’t the way I experienced it. Does the fact that women have managed reach the pinnacle of power in these cultures really mean that they were ahead when it came to women’s rights?


Well, let’s see. India, a primarily Hindu country, recently topped a poll of G20 member nations as the worst place to be a woman due to abominations including female infanticide and the burdensome dowry system. In neighbouring Muslim Pakistan, acid-attacks are on the rise and close to 1000 women are killed each year in ‘honour-crimes’ including this brazen murder in a courtroom.  By all accounts, things are getting worse, not better, for women in these parts of the world. 

Still, my friend’s words have stuck with me and I have wondered just how women managed to scale to such heights in such staunchly patriarchal societies.

Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of a former PM, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the democratic socialist People’s Party of Pakistan. Following her father’s execution, the party appointed her leader and assigned her a ‘safe’ seat for the election.

Indira Gandhi was the only child of India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru. When he died in 1964, she was given a position in the upper house. When PM Lal Bahadur Shastri died suddenly, the Congress party president chose her to replace him.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the widow of prime minister and founder of the left-wing Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Solomon Bandaranaike. When a Buddhist monk shot him to death, the party chose her to fill the power vacuum. In her public speeches she tearfully pledged to continue implementing her husband’s policies.

Not only did nepotism drive these women’s careers but their success was orchestrated by other powerful men.

There were high hopes that they would use their position to improve the lives of women but these were soon dashed. During her election campaigns Bhutto, often hailed as a champion of women’s rights, promised to overturn laws restricting women’s freedom. Her failure to do so, as well as her pro-life position (she regarded sex education and abortion as imperialist tools of the West) compelled women’s organisations to abandon their support.

Indira Gandhi, voted The Greatest Woman of the Last 1000 Years in a BBC poll, served three terms as PM during which she thrilled the masses with a decisive victory in the war against Pakistan and boosted agricultural production by 250 per cent during the ‘Green Revolution’.

She also declared a state of emergency and, ruling by decree, forcibly sterilised thousands of people, destroyed low-income housing and censored all media. These policies effectively shut down the operations of women’s organisations.

For her part, Bandaranaike made good on her pledges to implement her husband’s policies such as nationalising key sectors of the economy. But, she, like Gandhi, grew intolerant of criticism and fond of censorship. She also delayed public elections for two years for which she was later charged with abuse of power.

If these women proved anything, it’s that women can rule just like men. All were tainted by allegations of corruption, all failed to implement policies that changed the lives of women and none seemed particularly interested in paving the way for women to follow in their footsteps.

They were not appointed leaders in order to change the patriarchal system. Regarded as extensions of their father or husband, they were chosen to perpetuate it.

What these cases teach us is that patriarchy transcends religious and cultural boundaries and that simply having a woman in power is not necessarily a sign nor a guarantee of social progress. For proof look no further than former US vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Her meteoric rise to power and infamy at the behest of Republican presidential nominee John McCain was the most token of gestures, designed to appease (read: shut up) women. Closer inspection of her anti-woman policies however, proved that women can be as misogynistic as any man. 

So, no my good friend, feminism is not obsolete. It is not enough to have women leaders, we need to change the system to make it more woman-friendly.