The United States of America will see Kamala Harris as their first women vice-president. While Americans celebrate this feat as an achievement, I find it surprising to know that the country that set myriad history on women’s rights and the people who openly advocate worldwide about women empowerment had never seen women as head of the state.
“We cannot hope to formulate adequate development theory and policy for the majority of the world’s population who suffer from underdevelopment without first learning how their past economic and social history gave rise to their present underdevelopment.” — Andre Gunder Frank
Andre in his article The development of under-developed, compares two different societies. He further adds that the developed nations were never underdeveloped in history, but they were developing nations. So true, these two terms have tremendous differences among themselves. The countries of South Asia, especially India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, were in pitiful conditions. So were their women, but hope they carry resembles a lot with each other.
When the British left South Asia in the 1950s, South Asia's society was busy addressing religion, caste, and creed differences. The independence movement, war post freedom, and civil war had consumed lots of resources. The issues faced by women were not of the utmost importance to the government.
It was the women of South Asia who showed the world about the possibilities of Women as the head of the government.
In developed countries like America and Europe, people started talking about Women’s rights; they celebrated Women’s day a century back. Margaret Thatcher led the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. Norway, Finland, and other few European countries also had women as the head of the state/government, but thousands of miles away from Europe and America, South Asian Women actually celebrated this glorious feat. It was the women of South Asia who first showed the world about women's possibilities as the head of government.
Since the colonial era, South Asia, home of diversity and one-third of the world population, always remained at the center of attention because of poor infrastructure, low human development index, and deep-rooted patriarchal society. When women leading a country were unthinkable at the time of history, women of South Asia, the least developed and colonized nations globally, changed the global perception of women’s strength and leadership. Their women have led and served the nation before anyone else in the world.
Let us look at those five developing countries from South Asia who celebrated women as their leader.
Sri Lanka (1960)
Sri Lanka, a Buddhist nation surrounded by the Indian Ocean, is one of the commonwealth countries. Formerly known as Ceylon, they got independence from Britain in 1948; Sirimavo Bandaranaike was named the successor of a political party after her husband's assassination, the prime minister of Ceylon, in 1959. She led her party to win elections and became the first female to be elected as its head. She brought major reforms in her three terms in office. Her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga also became the prime minister and the president of the country.
Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of India after the British left the subcontinent in 1947. His daughter Indira Gandhi became the prime minister in 1966, also India’s first women prime minister. She got re-elected as the prime minister through elections three times, leading the country till her assassination in 1984. Her reforming of bank nationalization faction the party, but her political slogan of “Eradicate Poverty” resonated well and gave her landslide victory. During her tenure, She took major historical decisions that changed the geography of South Asia.
The largest democratic country of the world, India, with a 1.25 billion population, also had many female chief ministers who led the state government. J. Jayalalitha became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, India’s southern state, in 1991 and served for six terms. Mayawati, coming from backward castes in Uttar Pradesh, served four separate terms as a chief minister (first in 1995) while Sheila Dikshit (1998) from Delhi, Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal are few of the many prominent women leaders to lead their states till now. Similarly, India had its first female president, Pratibha Patil, in 2007.
A country created after India’s partition in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims had its first women Prime Minister in 1988. Benazir Bhutto, at 35, was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation. She served as the prime minister for two terms. She was also the leader of the opposition in the parliament. She was killed in a bomb blast during her election campaign in 2007.
Bangladesh, another Muslim majority country in South Asia, is also the 8th most populated world. It got independence from Pakistan in 1971. Khaleda Zia was the first woman in the country’s history to head the government. She served for two terms. Sheikh Hasina, an incumbent Prime Minister, is also the female head of the government.
Nepal is an oldest and non-colonized country of South Asia. It had a king till it abolished monarchy to become a republic country in 2007. Unlike its South Asian neighbors, Nepal got a female President as the head of the state only in 2015. Bidhya Devi Bhandari is the incumbent president of Nepal. Nepal’s constitution has endorsed and guaranteed a provision of mainstreaming females in elected vital positions from local bodies to the country’s highest positions. Coincidentally, Nepal also celebrated a unique feat of all three vital positions (the President of the country, speaker of the parliament, and Chief Justice of the country) served by a woman in 2017.
The early female head of the government of South Asia didn’t come from an ordinary family. Even before they set their foot in politics, their family had a powerful hold on country politics, but it doesn’t mean everything was a cakewalk for them. They had to go to the public for the mandate. The people of South Asia gave those female leaders victory, not once but multiple times. Not a century before, South Asia practiced Sati, burning a widow with her dead husband. A daughter was a burden for many families because of dowry practice. Daughters in the rural family going to school was not normal.
The stereotype society in South Asia has largely dominated women through their social stigma in the long run. Still, South Asian women have emerged to serve their country as the state’s head and other vital positions. This neither means that the situation of the women is notably smooth throughout the region. But their victory symbolized the women’s strength and gave a ray of hope to the upcoming generation, both in South Asia and the world.
The American people’s quest to have their first female head of the state that remain incomplete in the previous election has come true by the triumph of Kamala Harris as the first female elect-vice-president of the country. This is the commencement of their journey that they dreamed of the first female head of the state. In the next four years, the leadership of Kamala Harris will set the historical benchmark and aspire women to achieve the position that Hillary Clinton dreamed of four years ago.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”- Kamala Harris
From Sri Lanka in 1960 to Kosova in 2020, the sky is unlimited for those women leaders who dare to dream, and we might see more in the coming days. Like South Asia, The United States of America might see many female presidents in the 21st Century. The hope is a matter of time till then.