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South Asia’s Strongwomen

by Khaled Ahmed

Photo Illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Assuming control of political dynasties, women have overcome entrenched misogyny to emerge as leaders in conservative states

There can be no greater compliment for a writer than to be told their latest work is their best. Anna Suvorova’s most recent book, Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship, and Power in South Asia, deserves this acclaims and more as it culminates her earlier works on Muslim saints, Benazir Bhutto, Lahore, and the poetic genre of Sufism’s Masnavi. A bestselling author, Suvorova is no stranger to such commendations. An Urdu speaker who heads the Department of Asian Literature at the Institute of Oriental Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences) in Moscow, she was also awarded Pakistan’s Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 2009.

Her latest work is a wide-ranging book that tries to make sense of the women who have ruled—and suffered if not died in the process—over South Asian states where patriarchal misogyny remains entrenched. She writes in arresting detail about Indira Gandhi (1917-84) of India, Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) of Pakistan, Khaleda Zia (b. 1945) and Hasina Wajed (b. 1947) of Bangladesh, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000) and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga (b. 1945) of Sri Lanka. Despite their very real accomplishments in assuming leadership of their respective nations, all emerged from positions of great privilege, assuming power after the men who had wielded charisma to form personality cults died or were killed as martyrs.

Suvorova’s specifications

Suvorova takes special notice of the violence that created niches where these women could take the reins: “Of all these women leaders, only Indira’s father [Jawaharlal Nehru] and husband [Feroze Gandhi] died a natural death (i.e. they were not assassinated). Nevertheless, Indira lost both of her sons: Sanjay died in a plane crash in 1980 during her second term as prime minister, while she did not live to see Rajiv assassinated in 1991.”

A Buddhist monk in 1959 killed Solomon Bandaranaike—the prime minister of Sri Lanka who had converted from Christianity to Buddhism—leaving behind his widow Sirimavo and three children. Often called “the weeping widow” by a myriad of ill-wishers, Sirimavo nonetheless became the first non-hereditary female head of government in modern history when she was elected Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1960. Her daughter, Chandrika, also faced great tragedy prior to becoming the fifth president of Sri Lanka in 1994; a Sinhalese extremist killed her husband, actor Vijaya Kumaratunga, in 1988.

It is not a stretch to say that an instinctive public reverence of deceased male leaders played a great role in establishing the dynasties that allowed these women to climb to the top. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of Bangladesh’s “founder” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-75), was one of only two survivors in her family after a group of Bangladesh army officers assassinated her father, mother, brothers, sisters-in-law, and nephews (20 people altogether) in August 1975. Pakistan Peoples Party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by the Pakistan Army in 1977 and eventually executed by General Zia-ul-Haq two years later. Bangladesh, meanwhile, saw a shortlived coup-atop-a-coup in 1977, this time led by General Khaled Mosharraf. After three days in power, Mosharraf was ousted and killed by General Ziaur Rahman, who went on to survive 21 attempted military coups between 1977 and 1980. In 1981, then-president Rahman was assassinated in Chittagong.

Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina. Indranil Mukherjee—AFP

Case-history of cruelty

Hasina survived because she and her sister, Rehana, were on a private visit to West Germany to meet Hasina’s husband, Wajed Miah. Khaleda Zia, the wife of General Ziaur Rahman, meanwhile found herself leading a movement for democracy in Bangladesh after General Ershad assassinated her husband. The rumor that Rahman had been involved in Mujib’s murder has never died. In 1991 Zia became the first woman in Bangladesh’s history to head a democratic government as prime minister. Five year later, it was Hasina’s turn. Ever since, the two women have been in direct opposition, claiming legitimacy of rule that has divided Bangladesh into two kinds of nationalisms: Bengali, championed by Hasina and supported by India; and Bangladeshi, embraced by Khaleda and backed by Pakistan. The rivalry, factoring in the Pakistan-India enmity, has done much to add venom to the national divide.

In 1977, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928-79) of Pakistan was toppled by a military coup staged by his chosen Army chief General Zia-ul-Haq. A servile judiciary—self-confessing its perfidy in later years—allowed the general to hang Bhutto in 1979. Bhutto’s two sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, had left the country in exile, thus leaving the onus of his charisma to fall on daughter Benazir. The unspoken dynastic rule of routine made an exception in her case. She too was killed by a suicide-bomber in 2007 while General Musharraf ruled Pakistan. Across the border, India’s Indira Gandhi was also assassinated though her father, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, died a natural death.

Sonia Gandhi (b. 1946)—Italian by birth—had to face a region getting more sinister by the day. She was to be one of the widows that came to power indirectly in South Asia. Her husband, dynastic heir of the Nehru family prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, died in 1991 at the hands of a Tamil terrorist. But the transfer of dynastic charisma got the Congress party to win at the polls despite malicious opposition against her “foreigner” status.

Matching male muscle

In the case of Pakistan, the plot thickens. It can be called the path-breaking dynasty-killing state of the region. Normal rule gave way to charismatic leadership after 1970. The personality cult of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was erected on socialism as hero-worship by the masses, mixed with Islam as enshrined in the Constitution by the Objectives Resolution of 1949. The writer of the Indian constitution, B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), had warned in 1949, and no one listened: “There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered lifelong services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

In the patriarchal world of South Asia, women have to act tough or risk being toppled by men. In a sense it applies universally, as British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was often said to be “the only man in the cabinet.” Sheikh Hasina Wajed is authoritarian and harsh, bordering on cruelty. She got her father’s killers hanged, vanquished the opposition with the army under her thumb, the constitution giving her unlimited power with a majority in parliament touching two-thirds. Sirimavo Bandaranaike too had to act tough despite being a Buddhist. After her election as prime minister, she made Sinhalese the official language of the country (in place of English), which alienated the Tamil minority who then embraced violence.

Why do women rulers act tough? Suvorova has this diagnostic: “The male majority considered women to be inherently apolitical, passive, easily swayed, eager for compromise, incompetent, subject to the influence of their male entourage, and in a word, marionettes controlled by puppeteers present among advisors in the party hierarchy or cabinet.” The toughness actually comes from how the males view them. The capacity to bear pain and survive is the hallmark of human women since “the [Biblical] Fall,” which was blamed on her by scriptures.

Roll-call of women warriors

What happened to Chandrika, the daughter who took over after Sirimavo, could have happened to Benazir too had her brothers been around when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged. Chandrika had a brother, Anura, who felt cheated and, in 1994, joined the opposition, as he “believed that his sister had stolen his political heritage.” In the 1980s, as Khaleda Zia ruled in Bangladesh, her two sons came of age but neither Tarique Rahman (b. 1967) nor his brother Arafat (1970-2015) had any political experience. They were arrested on charges of corruption—and money-laundering—and fled the country after their mother lost power. None of Khaleda’s family was with her at home even though Tarique continued to wage propaganda campaigns in her favor from London.

Were all these widows and daughters “accidental” rulers? Suvorova gives us a survey of the current “leading” women in the region: Pratibha Patil (president of India, 2007-12), and chief ministers of Indian states: Jayaram Jayalalithaa (Tamil Nadu), Vasundhara Scindia (Rajasthan), Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), and Anandiben Patel (Gujarat). Sushma Swaraj today acts the powerful Minister of External Affairs in the government of Narendra Modi, while Pakistan and Bangladesh once had Hina Rabbani Khar and Dipu Moni, respectively in the job.

The book takes account of other women toughened by their circumstances into becoming “great”; from Shahjahan Begum, the ruler of Bhopal, to the adventuresome Begum Samru whose life can be called a study of the tyranny of circumstance. Men were to demonstrate their love for India by calling it ‘mother’ but such was the tyranny of events that Vande Matram (honor the mother), a song intended to unite, ended up dividing India.

The ‘weeping widow’

The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka found Sirimavo guilty of abuses in 1980. She was stripped of her parliamentary seat and prohibited from engaging in political activities for seven years. Before she had taken over, Colombo’s army had 60 percent Catholics in the officer corps, which made it easier for the Bandaranaikes to rule. She reformed the country to some normality but the ostracism imposed on her by the court insulted a woman who had been considered for two decades as the “Mother of the Nation.” She was however allowed to return to politics in 1986.

Things got rougher after her electoral defeat in 1989. She had to flee a meeting in Colombo after three bombs exploded in the crowd, her earlier magnetism a thing of the past. But support from her daughter, Chandrika, who took over the party and became the fifth President of Sri Lanka the same year, eased her sorrow despite Anura’s opposition to his sister’s rule.

Was Sirimavo Bandaranaike then a role model for future women rulers? No, that was Indira Gandhi (1917-84), the “Durga,” the deity, who is believed to have made it possible to break up Pakistan in 1971. The gift of the current paradigm of politics in South Asia is her gift to the region and men dutifully bow to it. Unconsciously, Benazir was to follow Indira’s early route to power by being educated in the West. (Chandrika too was in Paris for five years studying Political Science.)

Indira had married a Parsi—as Jinnah had earlier—which made Maneka, her son Sanjay’s wife, declare in court that her mother-in-law could not inherit a third of the property of Sanjay because she had ceased to be a Hindu after marrying a Parsi.

After Jinnah, Fatima Jinnah

Mohammad Ali Jinnah had converted to Twelver Shia from the Ismaili sect so he could bequeath his property to his sister Fatima through a will. After he died in 1948, it was necessary for his sister to declare him a Shia to inherit his property as per the will. (Sunni law partially rejects wills, while Shia law does not.) The grand-nephew of Jinnah, Liaquat H. Merchant, in his book Jinnah: A Judicial Verdict (1991), wrote: “She filed an affidavit, jointly signed with the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan, at the Sindh High Court, describing Jinnah as ‘Shia Khoja Mohamedan’ and praying that his will may be disposed of under Shia inheritance law. The court accepted the petition.”

Suvorova reproduces Jinnah’s commentary on his sister: “My sister was like a bright ray of light and hope whenever I came back home and met her. Anxieties would have been much greater and my health much worse, but for the restraint imposed by her.” And his will and testament read: “All shares, stocks, and securities and current accounts now standing in the name of my sister Fatima Jinnah are her absolute property. I have given them all to her by way of gifts during my lifetime, and I confirm the same, and she can dispose of them in any manner she pleases as her absolute property.”) The property was unsuccessfully contested, however, after Fatima’s demise by the progeny of her still-Ismaili sisters, Rahemat and Mariam, “to whom he had left a legacy of 100 rupees per month.” Fatima Jinnah would go on to become a strongwoman of Pakistan after unsuccessfully challenging General Ayub Khan at the polls in 1965.

In 1967, when Fatima Jinnah died, the official cause was a heart attack but rumors—as they inevitably do—suggested she was murdered. Abida Sultaan (1913-2002), heir to the state of Bhopal before it was annexed by India, kept a diary all her life, and sat down and wrote an eminently readable autobiography from it before she died. In Abida Sultaan: Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, she shared suspicions that Fatima Jinnah was killed: “I found Miss Jinnah lying surrounded with blocks of ice. There were blue patches on her face, mainly the left eye. There was some blood on the covering sheet but I could not detect whether it had come out from the ear, nose or mouth.”

Suvorova writes about the “Parsi curse” of the Nehru-Jinnah duo: “In 1938, Jinnah’s only daughter Dina married Neville Wadia, the son of a rich Bombay Parsi, who was also a textile magnate. The Wadia family was one of the founders of Indian shipbuilding. Jinnah was furious, as he had hoped for a Muslim son-in-law.” In India, meanwhile, Nehru had accepted Feroze Gandhi as his son-in-law.

Jinnah’s anger, however, removed the possibility of Dina becoming a ready-to-rule charismatic leader in Pakistan after his death in 1948: “She visited Pakistan only twice, the first time in 1948 during her father’s funeral and the second time in 2004 together with her son and grandchildren. She came to Jinnah’s mausoleum in Karachi, where she wrote in the guestbook, ‘This has been very sad and wonderful for me. May his dream for Pakistan come true!’ The visit was sad indeed as she felt like a foreigner in the country founded by her father.”

Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. Sinead Lynch—AFP

BB and Indira

Unlike Benazir, who attempted to moderate the “socialist” excesses of her nationalizing father, Indira was an absolutist, driving socialism forward with great vigor, her party now called Congress-I after her name. A Sikh religious resurgence in Punjab compelled her to take tough action at the Amritsar Golden Temple, resulting in retaliation from her Sikh bodyguards: “In October 1984, Beant Singh, who was standing on her left, took out his revolver and fired three shots at her. As she fell to the ground, Satwant Singh shot a volley from a pointblank range with his submachine gun.” For this, 3,000 Sikhs were to die, and hundreds of temples and thousands of stores and homes torched in New Delhi by crowds maddened with grief and rage.

Benazir’s life had a similar trajectory. General Zia incarcerated her after hanging Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979. In poor health, she went into exile and watched from abroad as Pakistan tried to digest the 1988 death of General Zia. She had initially tested the political waters by returning in 1986, landing in Lahore to see the city decorated as if it were a national holiday: “Moving through the dense human mass, her procession took 10 hours to make its way from the airport to the Iqbal Park, which usually takes half an hour by car.”

Thanks to her father’s legacy, and her own charisma, she won the 1988 general elections, only to see her Pakistan People’s Party government dismissed after two years in a kind of merry-go-round of toppling with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League throughout the 1990s. Much has been written about the corruption that took root in Pakistan during that decade and in 1996 the PPP’s handpicked “President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari officially disbanded the Benazir-led government on charges of corruption and incompetence.” Did the Bhutto charisma die that day? No, it didn’t: she was poised for another comeback when, in December 2007, a suicide bomber in Rawalpindi killed her. Ironically, the sympathy wave generated from her tragic demise allowed the PPP to emerge victorious in the 2008 general elections.

Brawling begums

In Bangladesh, the women who inherited leadership from martyrs were dealt with less cruelly by the patriarchy. Instead, the two—one a charismatic “successor” widow and the other a charismatic “successor” daughter—turned on each other, alternately inflicting defeats as the country was divided over their opposing pro-India and pro-Pakistan worldviews. Just as Benazir’s worry-beads helped her conquer the post-Zia Islamization of Pakistan, Hasina Wajed’s worry-beads helped her gain acceptance in a surprisingly Islamized Bangladesh. Today, Khaleda is imprisoned, her health reportedly deteriorating. Hasina’s policy of friendship with neighboring India, despite myriad territorial and water issues, has for now won out.

A paragraph about “widows and daughters” in the epilogue of Suvorova’s book is worth reproducing here: “If we combine their life stories into a single narrative, we get a very long martyrology indeed: assassination of the father, mother, brothers, and other members of the family (Hasina Wajed); execution of the father and tragic death of brothers (Benazir); assassination of the father and the husband (Chandrika); assassination of the husband and death of the son (Khaleda Zia); assassination of the husband (Sirimavo); and death of the son in an air-crash (Indira). Indira, Benazir, Hasina, and Khaleda were all subject to imprisonment. Sirimavo, Benazir, Hasina, and Chandrika survived assassination attempts (the latter lost one of her eyes in the process). Finally, Indira and Benazir were killed: the former while in office, and the latter on the eve of elections that she was expected to win.”

The strongwomen of South Asia are now largely gone except—with fading halos—in Bangladesh. India and Pakistan are now ruled by “strongmen” Narendra Modi and Imran Khan. The charisma of leadership is male once more, and returns with it the misogyny that has always simmered below the surface.

Democracy by dynasty

Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship, and Power in South Asia contains thought-provoking insights about how political dynasties are created in South Asia. Two academics, Farida Jalalzai, professor and Hannah Atkins endowed chair of Political Science, Oklahoma State University; and Meg Rincker, professor of Political Science, Purdue University Northwest, have noted the following facts about dynasties, including women leaders compelled to keep the dynastic flag flying:

“Nineteen of the 66 female executives in our sample had familial connections to politics—29 percent. One hundred of the 963 men we studied—just over 10 percent—had family ties. This suggests that family ties are particularly important for women to get into politics. In our analysis, the endorsement of a powerful male relative—himself preferably a former president or prime minister—meaningfully helps female politicians establish their credibility with voters and political insiders. Family ties are helpful for men, but in their case there are also other well-trodden paths to power.”

Male cult leaders are “extreme” because of their tragic flaw of overreaching. The parties they shape reinforce their hubris and preordain “over-stretch,” which then becomes the basis of their public acceptance. The excess in their personality is expressed in their pledge of extreme change. They announce drastic change “because the people want it.” When conditions of life become tough—in South Asia, often because of a mismatch between population and resources—the slogan of gradualist democratic change doesn’t work; you have to announce revolution because you can’t announce “violent change” with a straight face.

But history has a way of repeating itself. After the comeuppance of the current cult of the male, the fade-away phase may once again bring a clan strongwoman to center-stage.

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Shakil Ahmad May 10, 2019 - 7:22 pm

Excellent and true reflection on the learned Author Prof. Anna Suvorova. I would highly recommend that this book is made available in Libraries of all Institutions in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Additionally, the subject matter of the book may also be included in the History curriculum of the above countries specifically.

RAZA MEHDI BAQARI May 10, 2019 - 9:21 pm

Wonderful commentary on a very very meaningful and compelling book

Melissa March 8, 2020 - 2:13 pm

I agree


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