THE BLOG

Angela's Angels and the Political Patriarchy

Angela Merkel has again become the most powerful woman in the world. Surveying the global map of female heads of government highlights some surprising realities about emancipation and the patriarchy.

Angela Merkel has made it to a third term in office. Not being a fan of her conservative austerity politics and feeling that Germany, not to mention the EU as a whole, needs an injection of progressive radicalism, I had half-wished that the protest Pirate Party would, against the odds, force Germany to change political course.

Still, I have some reason to rejoice. Merkel, as the leader of the EU's largest member state, remains the "most powerful woman" in the world. Merkel is the first woman in Germany to become chancellor, and now she's done that thrice over, in what has been described as the "Merkel miracle."

This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that Merkel -- a scientist and not a politician by training -- started off at a severe disadvantage in Germany's post-reunification politics, hailing as she does from East Germany. Often dismissed as "dour" and "too boring for Germany", some are now talking of the need to redefine "charisma" in light of her understated "charm."

Like that other poster girl of conservative Europe, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel also has the distinction of being one of the few female heads of government to have made it to the very top of her country's political game on her own steam, and not thanks to being the member of a patriarchal political dynasty, as many others have proven to be.

Take Indira Gandhi in India. She was the daughter of Indian independence leader and the country's first premier Jawaharlal Nehru. Prime ministerial surrenderer Sonia Gandhi, wife of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was also connected to the Nehru dynasty.

In neighbouring Pakistan, the late Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of the popular but disastrous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the daughter of independence leader Sukarno. There were also Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.

China's Soong Ching-ling was married to Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 revolution. The parents of Sri Lanka's Chandrika Kumaratunga both served as prime minister in Sri Lanka. In fact, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was the world's first female prime minister.

Nevertheless, even if these woman did receive an initial leg up from the men in their families, their rise to the very top of the political game required talent. It also highlights an interesting reality, not to mention an intriguing paradox. The West prides itself on being the world leader in female emancipation, yet developing countries, especially in Asia, including quite a few Muslim-majority countries, have apparently delivered significantly more women heads of government.

Despite the fact that Western society is generally more gender egalitarian, the political, as well as the corporate, upper echelons have remained largely an old boys' club. In the United States, for instance, the only woman who has come within shouting range of becoming president is Hillary Clinton, who ended up losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, but may yet become president in the future.

This sole woman has also risen in the political game as her husband's successor. Of course, there's long been talk that Hillary was Bill's de facto vice president, or co-president even, and had a significant unofficial role in running the country, rather like the "Sultanate of Women" in the Ottoman empire of yore. But this notion is also partly fed by the discomfort the patriarchy feels towards a strong and outspoken woman.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this dynastic rule -- and, as female emancipation advances, these exceptions are gradually becoming the rule.

In addition to Merkel and Thatcher -- who made it in male-dominated politics by becoming honorary members of the patriarchy and not by advocating the cause of gender equality and female emancipation -- there were a number of noteworthy women, usually in small countries, who managed to circumnavigate the boys' club by themselves.

These included self-made lawyer Eugenia Charles in Dominica, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Israel's Golda Meir, Australia's Julia Gillard, New Zealand's Helen Clark and Jamaican incumbent Portia Simpson-Miller.

In Europe, there has been Gro Harlem Brundtland in Norway whose presumptive new premier is also a woman, Hanna Suchocka in Poland, the controversial Tansu Çiller in Turkey, and Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine.

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former prime minister of Iceland, had the distinction of being the world's first openly lesbian head of government.

What this reveals is a promising trend in which a growing number of women are leading their countries, and they are doing so solely on their own merit.

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