Women in South Asian politics


by Rumbold
30th December, 2007 at 8:16 pm    

Over at Comment is Free, Pickled Politics commentator and occasional guest blogger Rupa Huq writes about the political prominence which some women have achieved in South Asia, and contrasts that with the relative lack of success enjoyed by British Asian women:

“UK public opinion often perceives Asian women as passive and submissive. The first ethnic minority MPs of recent times were elected in 1987. They included an Asian man (Keith Vaz) and a black woman (Diane Abbot), but no Asian women. Ten years on and this is still the case. Common opinion has it that Asians “in Asia” are more backward than British-based ones. However Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have all had women at the helm in recent history. In India Indira Ghandi presided over the world’s largest democracy. Bhutto’s election in 1988 made her the first ever woman premier of a Muslim country.

The politics of Bangladesh, the world’s largest Muslim democracy, have been dominated for two decades by two women: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who have alternated in office. Ideological differences between their parties, the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) respectively, are minimal; their duopoly stems from the enmity between the two individuals. Many Bangladeshis think in the same way as an uncle of mine who said sagely, “These two women are ruining our country.” The country is, like Pakistan, currently in the hands of a caretaker government pending fresh elections amid claims of corruption on all sides.

It is also sad that, unlike their sisters in their homelands, British Asian women have hitherto been stubbornly absent from UK politics. When I visited the national Norwegian parliament in 2003 with the Council of Europe, we met a women’s delegation who included a newly elected Conservative party MP of Pakistani origin. We spoke via an interpreter and she expressed surprise that no Asian woman had broken through into British politics. Since then the ennobling of Sayeeda Warsi, of teddygate fame, has taken place after her failure to be nominated for a safe Conservative seat.

There are reasons to be cheerful though. More recently Asian women have been selected as parliamentary candidates in winnable seats for both the Conservatives and Labour – Priti Patel in Witham, Essex, Rushanara Ali in Bethnal Green and Bow and Yasmin Qureshi in Bolton South. The status of the House of Commons as an Asian woman-free zone will change at the next general election. After all, combining the best of Britain’s tradition of peaceful democracy with a strong role for women in the political process must be progress; after all, the “backward” subcontinent has managed the latter for decades.”


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  1. Muhamad — on 30th December, 2007 at 8:23 pm  

    Perhaps, neo-labour supporters who write ‘Ghandi’ instead of ‘Gandhi’ have something to do with it?

  2. douglas clark — on 31st December, 2007 at 8:16 am  

    Rupa Huq and I are, I think, on the same side. What I’d really like to see is a general agreement that neither sex, nor origins should be a criteria for selection. Personally, I’d vote for Rupa if she stood in a place where I had a vote. ’cause she’s sensible!

  3. Bartholomew — on 31st December, 2007 at 11:15 am  

    We don’t see much of East Asian women in UK politics either (Anna Lo in Northern Ireland is the exception). Chinese and East Asian representation in UK life seems to be less of an “issue” for public discussion than is the case with other established minority groups, for some reason.

  4. Inders — on 31st December, 2007 at 11:44 am  

    What do all of those South Asian women in power have in common ?

    Their last names were all famous before they were. Through fathers and husbands respectively. They were allowed to take power despite the fact they were women in my opinion. This is a class and heredity thing rather then any semblance of equality in action.

    Who was Thatchers father ? A nobody. I think South Asians might be better concentrating on getting poor people without the ‘right background’ ie privilege into politics first. Then the rest might follow.

  5. scribina — on 31st December, 2007 at 1:03 pm  

    “What do all of those South Asian women in power have in common ? Their last names were all famous before they were. Through fathers and husbands respectively.”

    I agree that that’s been the norm in Indian politics so far. But, I can find enough exceptions too – Mayawati, Jayalalitha, Mamta Banerjee, Ambika Soni, Sushma Swaraj…..
    Do you know who their father/husband was?

  6. douglas clark — on 31st December, 2007 at 1:28 pm  

    So, Rupa’s parents are famous? I must have missed that. I’ve only known her for what she writes. Which, frankly, is how it should be.

  7. Inders — on 31st December, 2007 at 2:06 pm  

    You’re right about one thing douglas you’re missing something.

    A few things in fact.

    I’m talking about the subject of Rupas article not about her. I’d wish people on here would start concentrating on the message rather then the medium (media).

  8. Inders — on 31st December, 2007 at 2:14 pm  

    All worthy exceptions Scribina. But the examples noted in the article are primarily about those few women holding the top position in their countries.

    If the net is widened to ministers and other various ranks of politician then this country again measures up quite well.

    On the other side of Rupa’s argument she could just be talking about minority women in politics but to compare that to south Asian politics where the vast populace are non-white is hardly a fair comparison.

  9. Natty — on 31st December, 2007 at 3:37 pm  

    I don’t buy her argument. It is equally possible Asian women are not interested in politics.

    Asian women have a powerful presence in business, finance, medicine etc. There are many female Asian Doctors, Accountants, Lawyers and business women. So possibly they haven’t been interested in entering the political arena.

    Maybe that is about to change.

  10. Natty — on 31st December, 2007 at 3:48 pm  

    BTW The Gulliani Campaign has seen one of its officials make very anti-Muslim remarks which don’t bode well for Western – Muslim relations.

    For those of you who say that the hate is one way check this out:

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2007_12/012801.php

    John Deady – part of the Rudi Team said:

    Deady said about Giuliani:

    “He’s got I believe the knowledge and the judgment to attack one of the most difficult problems in current history and that is the rise of the Muslims, and make no mistake about it, this hasn’t happened for a thousand years. These people are very, very dedicated and they’re also very smart, in their own way. We need to keep the feet to the fire and keep pressing these people until we defeat or chase them back to their caves — or in other words get rid of them.”

    Asked, for example, if he stood by his comments, Deady said:

    “I most assuredly do. I’ve been very concerned about this Muslim thing for quite awhile. The average American does not know beans about what the Muslims are about. I am talking about the Muslims in general. I don’t subscribe to the principle that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. They’re all Muslims.”

    I wonder if Rudi will come out and say this is nonsense.

  11. soru — on 31st December, 2007 at 7:23 pm  

    Isn’t it largely down to those countries being partly aristocracies, with feudal landlords?

    Feudalism is a family-based system, and 50% of members of a family are women. In contrast, look at other sources of political leaders: the military, clerics, businessmen, professions, even unions, are all mostly or overwhlemingly male.

    ‘I don’t subscribe to the principle that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. ‘

    Have you noticed that just about every statement about islam made by an anti-muslim bigot sounds like it could have come from the mouth of a takfiri head-case?

  12. rupahuq — on 1st January, 2008 at 9:39 am  

    A couple of links were missing from the original piece. This is the Norweigan Pakistani woman MP (Conservative)
    http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afshan_Rafiq
    or in English
    http://www.pakistandost.com/afshan.htm
    Some of the CiF commenters were doubting such a specimen could exist.
    She was born in 1975. It’s not just policemen who are getting younger then!

  13. Ravi Naik — on 1st January, 2008 at 4:04 pm  

    Rupa Huq and I are, I think, on the same side. What I’d really like to see is a general agreement that neither sex, nor origins should be a criteria for selection.

    douglas, you do not seem to be on the same side. Clearly, Rupa’s article is about gender and origin as criteria for selecting a political candidate.

    I am wary of any politician who uses its race, gender or religion as a trump card to get elected. There is nothing special about being born brown, white or yellow, men or women, christian or muslim. And being “asian” gives you little insight on the diversity that exists within South Asian community, let alone in non-european cultures. Keith Vaz is a prime example of an opportunist politician who has used the race card whenever he can.

  14. dd — on 2nd January, 2008 at 1:50 am  

    The politics of Bangladesh, the world’s largest Muslim democracy, have been dominated for two decades by two women: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who have alternated in office. Ideological电炉
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    接近开关 differences between their parties, the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) respectively, are minimal; their duopoly stems from the enmity between the two individuals. Many Bangladeshis think in the same way as an uncle of mine who said sagely,

  15. Phulkari — on 2nd January, 2008 at 7:31 am  

    Their father’s/husband’s were famous before them. However, I think about Sonia Ghandhi in India … do you think if an American male President was married to a non-American woman … his wife would have so much political power if he was no longer able to serve his country?

  16. halima — on 2nd January, 2008 at 9:33 am  

    “The politics of Bangladesh, the world’s largest Muslim democracy”

    Is this true? I am sitting in an e-cafe in Indonesia…

    Also, why restrict discussion of dynastic politics to women, and indeed to South Asia? We have examples like Bush junior and Bush senior? There seems to be an assumption that women only rise to prominence because of their husbands, fathers etc but the same is not true of men.

  17. Katherine — on 2nd January, 2008 at 1:04 pm  

    A very good point from Halima there – many political systems have tended towards dynasties – e.g. the Kennedys and then the Bushes in the US. Rising to power because of one’s parentage is hardly unusual, in the East or in the West.

    It is sadly the case though that when people quote Benazir Butto as an example of how, say, East Asian politics has done better in the gender equality stakes than in the West, they forget that there are very few non-dynastic women who have seen a sniff at power. And the West’s record is abysmal also – we can point to exactly one – Margaret Thatcher. Whoop-de-do.

    Nil points all round as far as I can see.

  18. Fe'reeha — on 2nd January, 2008 at 1:28 pm  

    Interesting feature.

    In my opinion, the difference between the attitude towars women in politics and power also emerge from the class difference.
    In the UK, the thriving Pakistani community is mostly business oriented. Their main aim in this country has always been to earn money to justify the move to a foreign country. The overseas student community who are genuinely interested in gaining knowledge rather than pounds from which the Bhutto clan came, mostly return to the ocuntries of their origin.
    The absence of the elite and hig class in Pakistani community in the UK is a major reason why there haws been a void of political representation from women.

    You need to have a good background in history, politics and education to get that extra push to excel even in British politics.
    Most of the women now visible in the British politcs again come from the middle class. For this, we must give crdist to the Labour government who introduced the working class in politics.
    This is not to say that it is a good practice.

  19. Robert — on 7th January, 2008 at 4:36 am  

    Don’t forget Sri Lanka. OK, not as populous as other South Asian countries, but still.

    It is noticeable that most of the women leaders mentioned are part of a dynasty.

    @ Bartholomew (3):

    I imagine that East Asian representation is perceived as a less pressing issue because there are less people from that ethnic minority grouping in the UK, no? I assume the largest proportion of our citizens from ethnic minorities have Commonwealth Heritage – either South Asia, Caribbean, or Africa – and thus representation from those groups is held to be more significant.

    But broadly, you are right, and as the population of East Asian heritage Britons grows, so the absence of representation will become more noticeable.

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