June 16, 2019


Left to right: Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Indira Gandhi of India, Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka | Photos from the book
Left to right: Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Indira Gandhi of India, Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka | Photos from the book

In the second half of the 20th century, four women unexpectedly became heads of government in South Asia: Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi of India, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh. Considering the increasing preoccupation with shattering the glass ceiling in global politics, the case of these female leaders in the mid-20th century seems exceptional and intriguing. Is there anything that unites their seemingly disparate journeys to power?

Can scholars of gender and politics today learn anything from their rule and legacies? Russian scholar Anna Suvorova attempts to unravel these questions in her book, Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship and Power in South Asia, originally written in Russian and translated into English by Daniel Dynin.

Using the economist Nassim Taleb’s theory of “black swans” — rare, hard-to-predict historical and political events that have major global consequences — Suvorova studies these women’s ascent to power and traces their different, but also strikingly similar, journeys as they charted a uniquely South Asian trajectory of female power.

A Russian scholar’s exploration of the rule of four female heads of government in South Asia makes for fruitful reading for students of history, but leaves one wanting more about the nexus of gender and politics

Arguing against the positions of historians who have viewed these women’s rise to power as merely coincident and relatively insignificant in terms of their impact on history and on women’s lives, Suvorova writes that they had a crucial cumulative political impact and that, on closer inspection, we see certain common patterns and trends in each woman’s rise to power.

In all of these cases, the ascension to power was based on the women’s relationships — through blood or marriage — to a charismatic leader or a “founding father” of the nation. Moving beyond what seems like an uncontroversial thesis, the book probes two interesting questions: first, what role did these women’s gender have on their political careers and how did they negotiate their gendered identities while in power? Second, did female representation at the highest level of politics actually positively impact women in these countries?

In responding to these interlinked queries, Suvorova posits a bold and contentious idea: that these women’s political rules are unified by one element: their common “maternal” public policies which focused on social and economic equity, peace in foreign policy and reconciliation in domestic policies. Suvorova claims that the politics of maternalism prioritises the values of service, care and selflessness in contrast to the thirst for power, aggression and ambition associated with “male” politics.

Suvorova is not the first to genderise public policy; other scholars have made the argument that female bureaucrats prioritise fields such as education, health and environmental protection, giving less attention to infrastructure investments. However, in a study of the relation between gender and power in these specific cases, Suvorova treads on tricky ground as she fails to explain or justify how these policies can be regarded as intrinsically ‘maternal’, risking using essentialised gender associations that have long been challenged in feminist theory.

As the book progresses, the reader learns that one feature of South Asian political cultures — which allows Suvorova to make this theoretical leap — is the collation of nationhood with motherhood in South Asia. She argues that far from being an anomalous event, historical and political processes from the 19th century onwards indirectly set the stage for women’s rise to power. In India, for instance, with the rise of civic nationalism in the interwar period, the iconography of land and the nation as female, and more specifically as ‘mother’, acquired embodiment in art, literature and political campaigns. This happened long before women such as Indira Gandhi would provide a literal form for this idealised notion.

During her three terms as prime minister, Gandhi often employed the rhetoric of a “widowed mother humbly serving her children, ie the people.” However, in 1975 she imposed Emergency rule, initiating what would come to be remembered as the most traumatic episode in the otherwise linear journey of Indian democracy. Her unpopularity in the two following years led to an interesting change in her iconography. Analysing the shift in Gandhi’s perception from a feminine, sheltering “mother of the nation” to a more dangerous and ruthless political actor, Suvorova writes that “the harshness of the Emergency disfigured the once harmonious maternal image, turning the merciful Durga into the destructive Kali, although both of them stem from the same archetype of the mother goddess.” Suvorova thus shows us the continuing relevance of these symbols, which emerged at the height of the national independence movement in colonial India, and continued to be powerful and popular in postcolonial India.

Pakistan’s nationalism has travelled a different journey. Suvorova shows us that because Pakistani nationalism had been a dominantly male nationalism — unlike its Indian and Bengali neighbours — neither Fatima Jinnah (sister of Mohammad Ali Jinnah) nor Benazir Bhutto assumed personification with the state as a whole in the way that Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Gandhi did. This may explain why Bhutto, finding herself a young leader thrust into a deeply patriarchal political culture that lacked any precedent for female rule, often resorted to emphasising her gender rather than downplaying it, speaking openly about the problems she faced in her early career and capitalising on the trope of the ‘daughter of the nation’ to appeal to voters in her later years.

Suvorova’s contention is that, while Bhutto did empower women and broaden their civic participation, not each of these leaders focused on women-centric policies in their rule, often bolstering and conforming to existent patriarchal norms and structures in their societies. Bandaranaike, the 44-year-old Ceylonese widow who made history as the world’s first female premier in 1960 and then served three terms as prime minister, professed a clear disinterest in empowering women through legislative changes, believing that all the “necessary rights of Sri Lankan women were already assured by Buddhism.” Partly as a result of this, representation of women in government bodies remained dismally low during her reign.

By being attentive to each woman’s years in power individually, Suvorova is able to present a complex picture of the effects of these women’s election to power. However, the book is ill served by a reductive analysis in parts, which leads Suvorova to make such claims as no South Asian female prime minister ever considered herself to be a feminist. Such simplifications reveal a lack of engagement with the rich and textured world of postcolonial feminist theory and its critique of any notion of feminism that disregards factors such as historical context and class. Suvorova’s analysis is, therefore, weakened by the lack of any complex and detailed exploration of the feminist implications of these women’s time as rulers and seems far more focused on the relation between kinship and power in the four examples used as case studies. This makes the book a fruitful read for someone interested in the history and politics of these countries during the 1960s to the ’80s but, for others more specifically interested in the interaction of gender and politics in the region, it leaves the reader wishing for more.

This study could have been far more interesting had the author probed specific circumstances of these women’s time in office, for instance the experience of new motherhood while being prime minister as in the case of Bhutto, the first sitting prime minister to give birth during her tenure. Bhutto’s pregnancy was controversially secretive and her daughter, Bakhtawar, was born amidst a volatile political climate as a military-funded movement challenged Bhutto’s government. How did she negotiate the territories of nation and motherhood when there was no available template, no lesson-book on doing so?

We are reminded of the relevance of these questions in the 21st century when, after 30 years, another female head of state — New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — gave birth while serving as prime minister. As opposed to Bhutto, Ardern announced the pregnancy well in advance and aptly posted news of the birth on social media. However, when she travelled to a United Nations meeting in New York with her three-month-old baby, it was regarded by some as a ‘milestone moment’ and, by others, as inappropriate and controversial. These divergent views leave us with a lot to think about when we consider women’s lives and opportunities in the 21st century and re-examine — in an age obsessed with notions of progress and of looking forward — how much we can learn by looking backwards for a change.

The reviewer holds an MPhil in South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford and currently teaches at LUMS

Widows and Daughters:
Gender, Kinship
and Power in South Asia
By Anna Suvorova
Translated by Daniel Dynin
OUP, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199408672

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 16th, 2019