Women have participated to a great extent in policy-making and politics in many South Asian countries. However, I still believe women’s involvement in South Asian countries’ politics has been an all time low especially in the light of male dominance coupled with damaging stereotypes that women are not equal to men. In many countries of South Asia, fervent efforts have been made to boost women’s political participation, yet the percentage of women in the higher spheres of the political power structure has not changed for the better.
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Nevertheless, I understand that women have been discouraged by various factors from engaging in active politics in South Asia. The main reasons are due to the amount of violence, corruption, and manipulations coupled with authoritarian political system, which continue to remain as barriers even in contemporary times (Fleschenberg, 56). Nevertheless, despite the many challenges, women have played significant roles in South Asian politics as exposited in this paper.
The following data clearly indicates the situation of women in higher level of Power structure in South Asia region as researched by Ghimire (74):
Despite the picture presented above and the challenges that women have faced throughout history, I think Asian women have been at the cutting edge of female political participation in the world. Female prime ministers and presidents have repeatedly governed countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan.
I know women across South Asia have not shied away from opposition and reforms as well as in independent movements and human rights activism; a good example is Wan Azizah Wan Ismail of Malaysia, Rebiya Kadeer of China, and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. However, I rue the fact that women at other lower levels of political decision and policy making like the local government have failed to replicate this example.
I learnt that pre-colonial era in South Asia was characterized by relatively favorable position of women. Literature has it that South Asia was endowed with economic and strategically positioned for trade leading to attraction of Europeans in search of habitable land.
This led to colonization by 1890s except Siam (Thailand) and in most places women were recruited as cheap laborers on plantations and processing factories. Unlike the customary laws, which had given women considerable autonomy, the colonial regimes at the village level helped to strengthen the male position as the head of the household. Although Siam was never colonized, similar trends could be traced as well (Norton, 24). These developments led to sons being preferred more as compared to daughters.
According to my understanding, women remained active in informal political spheres and participated fully in political demonstrations and mass agitations. During the anti-colonial protests by Gandhi through the National Movement, women were mobilized to participate actively. I was surprised that women organizations participated for instance in the Civil Disobedience Movements and Salt Satyagraha to oppose colonialism.
Gandhi chose the spinning wheel and salt as symbols for freedom, struggle, and civil disobedience, which he derived from the feminine reproductive realm. Unfortunately, once freedom was won, these organizations were marginalized and subjected to deal with issues concerning women and children (Lal and Kumar, 32). They only ended up being second to the male leadership that dominated national politics to the extent that men led except for some situations where women with political affiliation were given leadership posts.
I strongly believe that the women in political leadership in South Asia have participated largely to dealing with issues of gender inequality and violence against women and children. For example, although the Indian constitution guaranteed equality between sexes, the landmark report ‘Status of Women in India of 1974’ served to show clearly the level of gender disparity in India (Bakshi, 5).
Since mid-1970s, women movements in India began to come up based on different aspects of gender discrimination where economic independence came to be seen as the only means to victory.
Women movements participated in bringing up issues to the public that would have otherwise remained private (Samarasinghe, 202-203). These issues include custodial rape, ‘sati’ or widow immolation and murdering of young women by their husband’s families known as ‘dowry deaths’. Women took to political protests and agitation to declare an end to such issues.
I have come to realize that women who have emerged as leaders in South Asia have shown that women are not to be underestimated at all in the political arena.
They are able to bring landmark changes to a country in terms of the rule of law and democracy. A case in point is the rise to power of President Corazon Aquino in the Philippines in 1986 through People Power Revolution. After ousting the then President Marcos by mobilizing people into massive civil disobedience following a rigged election, she immediately engaged to political reforms and constitutional changes.
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She oversaw the promulgation of a new constitution that reduced the power of the president (Phillips, 250). She also spearheaded peace talks with communist insurgents and it is important to note that during her tenure, the United States moved its military base from the country, evidence that women political leaders in South Asia contributed to the peace and stability of the region.
Unfortunately, we view women as the weak sex because they seemingly they ‘do not have’ the ability to fight and defend themselves. Nevertheless, woe unto us, women leaders in South Asia stood to oppose such claims by showing they could go into war and even do all possible to defend their country. The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi went into war against Pakistan in 1971 despite warning from the United States through President Nixon. India won the war leading to the birth of Bangladesh.
However, I regret that the siege mentality sometimes proved fatal for women leaders like the case of Glory Aroyo in the Philippines. Although she campaigned on the platform of restoration and healing of the nation, she demonstrated the exact opposite when she took power.
She demonstrated a masculine toughness by using force to quell the riots that were taking place across her country; but that is politics; you say one thing when you are campaigning for a given post and once you get there you propagate what you criticized in the first place. It is also evident that citizen movements have the spirit of freedom due to disruption of family and courageous women leadership, ousted authoritarian and dictatorial leaderships.
For example the People’s Uprising in Gwangju, the first people’s power movement in the Philippines in 1986 and the ‘reformasi’ uprising in Indonesia in 1998. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Cory Aquino, and Megawati Sukarnoputri became national leaders because of popular rebellions against authoritarian governments headed in each case by physically declining and ill strongmen.
I love the fact that, the concept of women as the primary reproducers and custodians of life played a powerful role in the task of troubling the state in matters of moral decency. This shows a link between the liberation movements and the rise to power of female opposition leaders.
The involvement of women in these movements makes them legitimate and morally uplifting (Phillips, 345). For example, during the ‘reformasi’ movement in Indonesia in 1998, young women formed a cordon between armed soldiers and peaceful demonstrators placing flowers in the barrels of upturned rifles.
It is of importance to note that most women in South Asia have chosen to take the path of kinship ties to dominant male politicians as an avenue to rise into power. Throughout South Asian history, it appeared to be the most popular means to women gaining prominence in their respective countries.
Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister of India was the daughter of a former Prime Minister while Sirima Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka was the widow of a former prime minister. Initially, they were thought to be gullible and mere figureheads to act as puppets to the kingmakers.
However, these women emerged to prove critics wrong by parading themselves as strong characters and very independent minded people (Samarasighe, 199). The emergence of Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka politics was different from the kinship legacy idea associated with female Asian politicians. Instead of being groomed into leadership, she used her widowed and daughter state to emerge into politics.
The women in South Asia have used the existing system to emerge into political limelight despite the massive challenges facing them, they have also gone ahead to foster democracy and participate fully in making policies that have helped reduce gender discriminations in the region. Although some of the issues they have worked still have a long way to go in terms of implementation, it is important to acknowledge that they have made steps in the right direction since you cannot erase age-old systems with a policy.
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Lal, Malashri and Kumar P. Sukrita, Women Studies in India: contours of change, vol. 2001, 2002. 55-78.
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