Book Reviews - Widows and Daughters Gender, Kinship, and Power in South Asia by Anna Suvorova, translated from Russian by Daniel Dynin, published by Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2019, pages: 304 (paperback), price: Pak rupees 1495/-.
Dreaming to see a matriarchal society again, where women ruled and men were not challenging them out of any in-bred sense of male superiority, or a threat to the male self-respect, is not a distant cry. The book under review has a prolonged hint to this peaceful world. The book envisions evaluating rise of power of six female leaders to the top political positions, their performance, successes and failures and their reasons, as well. It also mentions a seventh woman who did not rise to formal power but she commanded great respect and potential to all that glory. The book as such is not seeped in any feminist spirit or mission to change the norms, yet it analyzes critically the political culture of South Asia as to its potential to let women operate freely and effectively as leaders and managers.
Regarding gender, it is needless to say that political culture grows out of centuries old norms, having been brewed in the volatile pressure of change in the rush to catch up with the pace of globalization in all its dimensions. In an attempt to discover a rule about as to how the females get to the position of high power and prestige in the South Asian cultures, having deep-seated patriarchal control in all spheres of life. Here six women have set extraordinary examples in the modern times; for which the author Anna Suvorova discovers a 'traditional' rule that it is mainly the outcome of heritage. Lineage works superbly when one prominent leader (male) suffers, is eliminated by force, is dead or has been attempted to murder. Either widows or daughters are then given command of the party, and possible party leadership is also entrusted to them.
Another associated question then springs up automatically that do women have to be deprived of one male relative inevitably to get to the top position, since without any such mishap, no other woman rose to that position? If it is the rule, it is highly atrocious, for both men and women. Does the political system operate only to eliminate a traditional superior power-holder, to let an inferior person in the hierarchy to grab power? Apparently that is very logical, that in the presence of a more fitting person less fitting cannot enjoy power, yet why this pattern has added female gender as a significant characteristic of a male inheritor? Moreover, does it prove the rule of inferiority of women as they are replacement of a male only when a better male is not available, so inevitably they take the seat for a while?
It also happened that after the down fall of female power-holders again the power went to a male, not necessarily on inheritance basis, but mostly by a complex interplay of forces having both democratic and undemocratic credentials. Such questions still remain unanswered. A few more questions can be put to the author of the book under review, yet this book review must mention what questions are posed and what answers have been put forward. One main question the book has apparently pursued is that: 'how these seven women have managed to take power and how they have been able to exploit to their benefit the traditions of sexuality, motherhood, and kinship in South Asia?' The top six women of South Asia included chronologically, Siri Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Begum Khaleda Zia, and Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Suvorova finds a similar condition among the six cases as the, 'South Asian societies chose women leaders only in times of crisis' which included murder of husband, father, or death of someone at the helm of affairs. Benazir was chosen through people's vote, after the accidental death of dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, but because of her father's legendary extinction by a disputed court case, and also because she embodied the hope for the democratic process to revive. Indira was elected after the death of Prime Minister Shastri, who had succeeded her father. Khaleda Zia rose after resignation of dictator Ershad. It was the time when possible inheriting men had gone offstage. Moreover, these women were put to run the government and discharge duties on trial basis mostly because they were not expecting or were not prepared to take up such duties. And see, Benazir was murdered when it was sure she would win the election on merit.
Democracy had a weird interaction with these women, and the author asserts that: 'power is inevitably bound up with suffering for South Asian women' (p. 262). She adds that power is given to these women as a 'compensation' for their sufferings and tribulations. So, for them, power is packed with sacrifice and miseries: 'it is no trick of fate but a kind of ill fortune' (p. 263). This tragedy, according to the author, also intertwined with allocation of power is characteristic of the patriarchal political culture of South Asia. Hence it is another maligned feature she has pointed out. This is proved by continuation of discrimination and humiliation of all other women simultaneously. So such top leader women could not add to overall empowerment of the women population of their countries as was expected.
This also proves their 'failure'; for if compared with men rulers, who introduced emancipatory laws and policies, such women could not venture any considerable innovation, let alone any single revolutionary action. What Suvorova discovers, she finds it matching it with other professions where women enjoy power, such as of writing, because there, too, women are restricted. To prove this one can see writers of national and local languages of Pakistan, who daringly could not express their revolutionary views or could not introduce such revolutionary characters, and if they did, they were termed as 'shameless', 'vulgar', and 'masculine'; meaning less of a normal woman who has to accept the traditional standards of morality-being humble, naive, obedient, complying, altruistic, suffering with patience, and promoting the male relatives in their successful careers.
Interestingly whenever such few bold female characters or roles were portrayed, filmed and presented, they only gave enjoyment and recreation, but could not put a dent into the male chauvinistic culture, which, unfortunately has been promoted by women as well, because women get benefits out of it. The 'classical patriarchy', entrenched in the society, operates in all religious groups of the region, the author explains. It does not allow equal access to public sphere, so women are expected to remain confined to the private sphere of household, sexuality and motherhood. Such crude, rude and outrageous situations have been faced by these women leaders in their political life, too; the book contains its examples as well. Despite such complaints, these women leaders also played as a functionary of the patriarchal system, behaving like masculine persons, staying away from feminist mindset.
Benazir Bhutto had even defied her party manifesto that promised repealing of discriminatory laws in Pakistan (e.g., Hudood Ordinance introduced by General Zia in 1979.) In their personal lives as well, these women had made compromises with the patriarchal culture, since it does not allow a woman to rent a flat on her responsibility alone, or allow marriage by her own choice, so they set certain role models, but not of a perfect quality. Suvorova highlights that motherhood role is a highly sanctified, glorified and revered role in all South Asian religions, so it helped these women to gain acceptability. For instance Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Khaleda Zia, and Chandrika Kumaratunga took benefit of their status as 'widow mother' in elections. The attributes of a traditional mother added to their capacity and hopes of people that they would deliver selflessly, caringly, and altruistically.
One exception to the rule of being 'widow or daughter' of a slain or departed male leader has been Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah of Pakistan who happened to be a sister of the Founder of the Nation, Muhammad Al Jinnah. In fact he neither left behind a widow, nor a daughter who could be accepted by the nation, since he himself had 'abandoned' her from the privileges of being his daughter in his own life. The choice was clear; the only female who had stood by him whole life, in the long struggle for independence and even after that she continued pressing for his ideals to be realized by Jinnah's successors. A strong woman, with very clear vision and mission for the nation he had built, stood as a comrade to other leaders of the struggle. Even Islamist parties supported her, whereas long after her contesting elections against a general, the same Islamists opposed Benazir's rise to prime minister.
It was a game of 'convenience', when they needed to support her, they did not hesitate, and when they were not feeling any strong opposition, they obstructed Benazir's way through using religious arguments. They kept exploiting their own potential in two opposite ways. Interestingly, Fatima Jinnah was unmarried, having no children but was given the title of 'Madr-e-Millat' (mother of the nation), a unique honor, and the spirit of struggle for independence was alive in the society till the 1960s.The dictator's machinery failed her, as history goes, otherwise Pakistan could have set a great record in the history of region as well as the world. Suvorova comments on her case as: '... motherhood has value first and foremost as a patriarchal symbol rather than a 'biological state'. She adds that Fatima's story [of 'failure'] reveals that pedigree, kinship and blood ties are more important than gender or family status. Here, this point is not convincing enough.
By the late 1960s, the brief 20 years history of Pakistan had never seen free play of democratic forces. Furthermore, the conspiracies and blunders of the civil-military nexus, for perpetuating their own gains, and by 'humiliating' the popular vote, due to their inherent dislike for the 'civilian' choice, and believing in the colonial metaphoric mentality, considering 'the society is not yet fit for democracy', all were operating against a great politician of the country. Had Pakistan been allowed treading on the democratic path unobstructed, after two decades, the results of such elections would have been encouraging to the aspirations of common folks of Pakistan, and not to the chosen few who had been suffocating growth of democracy with full force. The author seems to have not gone thoroughly through the history of Pakistan at least, while drawing such a conclusion. Suvorova has also discussed the concept of 'charismatic' leadership in South Asia, at length.
She delves into the psychological concepts, mythical beliefs, fortunes, God Almighty or god's will to handle things as popular belief, such as plane crash of Zia, or Hasina being saved while her family was murdered in Dacca, etc. With such 'evidences of supernatural interferences', found in these top women's biographies, Suvorova refers to as a proof as they were saved from many attacks, whereas she knows that Benazir and Indira were also finally killed. However, she points out that these leaders faced overthrowing of their government, and resignation due to very common charges of corruption, and judicial ordeals, negating the very concept of 'charisma', also confirming that for women, charisma does not operate the way it does for men in a patriarchal system.
A lengthy debate around the role of charisma and performance of these women leaders as managers culminates at the point that these women could not establish themselves as good heads of government or state, because military revolted against them, or their party indulged in infighting and fragmentation while they were in power, all such factors alluding to the conclusion that they could not fight on all fronts appropriately. Comparing with strong lades like Margaret Thatcher (UK) and Golda Meir (Israel), the author asserts that they rose to power on their personal merit and not through the crutches of family or charisma. As such were not the conditions in South Asia, the seven women leaders, however, struggled, took benefit of existing values, and tried to prove their 'merit among the prevalent political culture' this is what the author concludes, as a way of homage to the great women.
Not discouraged by the fateful end of Benazir and Indira, she writes: 'these women leaders will come down in history and narratives as charismatic heroines who established the contemporary Asian matriarchy'. In this sense, it is a conclusion drawn by an analyst, who is less a historian or political scientist, but basically more a person from the field of humanities, writing on Urdu Masnavis, saints and sufi culture, and theatre, city, etc. She could not give any coherent theoretical framework to analyze a crucial topic, having relation with all humanity living in the region. She did not even wrap feminist ideals around such women, despite discussing patriarchy, rather putting all blame on it. Feminist ideology has paved way in the region, and it has ancient roots in the philosophy, mythology, culture and religions, yet the author could not pin point it.
Nonetheless she has given a panoramic view of South Asian history to mention the powerful women who rose to power through various means, while the modern day women are left with fewer ones. The heroines who fought for their own power, or welfare and honour of their community, religious/ethnic/nationalist group, principality, kingdom or a faction of rebels against the all-powerful colonial rulers from Great Britain. The only principle that women were regarded highly as mothers did not apply to all these women. Women made their way in ancient, medieval and modern times, and no doubt spirit of time changes, new challenges emerge, but one thing must be accepted, as a rule that South Asian culture or society, due to its broad range of inheritance, and multiple systems of 'faith', has not been outright against women's leadership. All three greatest religions followed here have seen their women followers getting to the top, and no such bloodshed was seen.
Masses in the modern times following them quite independently affirm this assertion more vividly. Even matriarchy, or a wish for it, cannot explain this. In fact the subject is really a complex one. The author has delved into the psychology of these leaders as well, and by doing so, she has shown successfully how a writer with a different context and approach would see the six women top leaders of South Asia, by showing these women's personal emotions on their experiences and travails, or their feeling on being grilled for being a woman, and taking a good stock of their lives compromising with patriarchy to get ahead. This is all what a common woman has to deal with in everyday life in South Asia. Suvorova's conclusions apply more broadly on common women as well, and this is a notable worth of her analysis.
Be it a political elite family, a middle class enlightened family having brilliant aspirations for its daughters, or a poor family desperate to utilize its women's income, all have certain defining and confining corollaries for daughters-to allow something on acceptance of certain limiting conditions, inevitably imposed by the 'outgrown' patriarchy. By chance, we have come to know through this book that this 'outgrown' patriarchy has suffered at the hands of these courageous women leaders, who did a 'real revolution in the public consciousness' by changing the minds of hundreds of millions of voters in four extremely backward countries of the world, at least in terms of political culture. And a big trail of courage now follows them!
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|Date:||Jun 30, 2019|
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