The question of the South Asian ‘matriarchate’


    – Book review – Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship and Power in South Asia by Anna Suvorova



    On Friday simultaneous ‘Aurat Marches’ took place in major cities all over the country to mark the International Day for Women. This becomes the second time in as many years that the march has been held to commemorate Women’s Day – a display of women taking to the streets to assert not just their right to public spaces but also to lay claim to their right of equal citizenry.

    The issue of women’s rights seems to have a particularly vitriolic tint in South Asia. The region is, whether rightfully so or not, vilified as the scene of great oppression against women. The subcontinent, especially, has been presented as a model of what heavy handed patriarchy looks like. And as the world moves forward to a more equal – radically so even by some measures – system of organising itself, South Asia lags behind on women’s issues. Whether this is an outcome of other issues being more pressing or the roots of social cues being deeper in the area, it is seen as epidemic.

    Yet despite this general characterisation, anomaly sticks out in South Asia, namely the shattering of that final glass ceiling which so many in more progressive parts of the world have yet to achieve  – women in politics. Looking only at the Subcontinent, Sri Lanka included, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have produced six different women that have led their countries. All came in times of crisis, and all were either widows or daughters of men that had been killed in the line of politics – thus making their political position more a matter of succession than anything else.

    This idea of the ‘contemporary Asian matriarchate’ is the topic of the latest book by Russian author and Orientalist Anna Suvorova titled ‘Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship, and Power in South Asia.’ Suvorova makes a strong case in her book. She takes for her account Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Bangladeshi Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, as well as Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi. The only other woman she considers is Fatima Jinnah, who never held public office and was neither a widow not a daughter, but a sister. But even in that case, Muhammad Ali Jinnah neither had a widow nor a daughter to succeed him.  

    One by one Suvorova deals with every aspect of the question of women in power in the region and where they derive this power from. That there have been this many females heads of government from South Asia is not a coincidence. And even lesser so is the fact that, without fail, they were all thrust into the annals of power upon the death of a father or a husband. The book itself is thoroughly academic. In fact, each chapter is treated separately, dealing with a different facet of the argument or different leader, although it does draw on the overarching arguments. Each chapter, ending with references and diligently annotated, is written almost as  a separate academic essay. Yet the thesis is the same, that it is simply an issue of inheritance.

    Women have inherited office in other parts of the world as well, of course. In Asia alone, perhaps Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia or Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina in South America are examples. Yet even more so in the places where the glass ceiling has been broken, women leaders have more often than not come to the fore of their merits. Golda Meir was born to a Ukrainian carpenter, Margaret Thatcher to a Lincolnshire grocer, Mary Robinson was the daughter of two doctors, and Argentinian President Isabel Martínez de Perón was a nightclub dancer. Of the current incumbents, Halima Yacob of Singapore is the daughter of a watchmaker, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s father was a police officer, and Angela Merkel’s father was a Lutheran pastor.

    Inherited political office, even in democracies, is of course a thoroughly South Asian tradition. As the author points out in her chapter on Benazir Bhutto, Benazir herself was aware of this, who said that “Other women in the subcontinent had picked up the political banners of their husbands, brothers and fathers before me … I just never thought it would happen to me.” The argument here is that while the women discussed in this book may come to power in a dynastic fashion, they do so as something typical of South Asian politics.

    Suvorova makes a well versed argument. One that is not necessarily an indictment for the South Asian identity. Women in positions of power may only have been widows and daughters, but dynastic is the rule for the region – even with supposedly democratic ideals. In Pakistan alone, Benazir Bhutto might have been the heir to her father, but her father had two sons – one of whom actively tried to wrest control from the late Benazir’s hands. In more recent times, the introduction of Maryam Nawaz to politics as her father’s heir, while yet to play out, was also a conscious decision – not an emergency cover up.