Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Political ceilings and women

A lot of us were recently privy to the lives of two women at the upper rungs of their respective political situations. Unfortunately, one of them is no longer with us. She was killed off by an assassin for daring to come back and stand for elections in a country trying to hide a poor record of individual rights and freedoms. The other woman is very much with us, struggling to re-assert her candidacy for becoming the leader of what is currently the most powerful nation. The former is of course, Benazir Bhutto and the latter is the redoubtable Hillary Clinton. It has been said in some quarters that the late Ms. Bhutto would have stood a very good chance of winning elections in her nation if she had been allowed to complete her course.

It indeed is a run of irony that in a predominantly male dominated nation (Pakistan) that is overrun with the vile nexus of corruption, terrorism and quasi dictatorship, a lady should stand a very good chance of winning the national polls, while the United States who trumpet things like equal freedoms for the sexes, low governmental corruption and a model of representative democracy, the leading lady should struggle so hard to even convince people that she indeed is electable and palatable. Oftentimes, I hear from colleagues back in India, who claim that India, Pakistan and Burma are much more pluralistic and inclusive than the United States given the fact that we are not able to muster a lady for high office.

However, reading a paragraph in a recent opinion piece in the Times written by Reason magazine editor Kerry Howley helps us get a better perspective of the seeming paradox. In her words:

Like it or not, the road to female advancement often begins at the altar. History books are thick with examples of women who broke political barriers because their family connections afforded them the opportunity.

If you’ve ever wondered why India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines seem readier to elect women than does the United States, here’s your answer: Societies that value a candidate’s family affiliation, and therefore have a history of nepotistic succession, are often open to female leadership so long as it bears the right brand. Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, among many others, slashed through gender barriers on the strength of their family names. In the United States, where a poll last year found that 14 percent of people still admit they would not vote for a woman, nepotistic advancement for women in politics was most common early in the 20th century.

Social psychologists have found that women in leadership roles are typically seen as either warm, likable and incompetent, or cold, distant and competent. To be a strong, competent woman is to be something culturally unattractive, which probably says something about why few American women even aspire to political office. Worldwide, even popular female politicians — Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Angela Merkel — are slapped with the moniker “iron lady.”

It does seem like there is more than what meets the eyes – that Asian countries are more tolerant of their women as long as they come with a corresponding rider - the lady in question advertises a certain branding (like a family moniker), the tolerance remains. In the United States, we have passed the age of branding (of course, it was very much the norm - as the essay shows). That does not mean that we stand free, high, moral and clear. We have not passed onto an age where ‘gender free’ competition (like that term or not) is the norm although we have made some amazing strides when it comes to ‘race free’ competition. Gloria Steinem in today’s Times puts it better:

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy. So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

We will get there, but it sure is going to be a long hard haul on an uncertain road filled with crevices that promise a lot of stumbles as we get there... Oh, and by the way, India, Pakistan and Burma still have some catching up to do.

Note: List of Kerry Howley’s articles here.

Sunil, 'Incipient Femdom', 14" X 12", Ink and charcoal on paper


JafaBrit's Art said...

fabulous post and a great analysis.

Sujith said...

I just loved it,the post was just great and with facts.