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Are India’s women more politically empowered than American women?

December 11, 2006

The World Economic Forum has put India up there when it comes to empowerment of women politically. India is ahead of countries like the United States and Japan. While India is ranked 20th, the United States is ranked 66th. An anomaly. And Bangladesh scores 17th and Sri Lanka as high as 7th!
How can this be even when we know the womens’ rights in the high ranking third world countries are not as good as they are in the United States? Well, for one thing, the World Economic Forum’s gives points for countries which have or have had women Prime Ministers and Presidents. But once we know how these women got to the positions they did, then we realise that the ranking actually means nothing much.
Let us see how some of these women became leaders. Rather, how these princesses became queens.

India: Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. And Sonia Gandhi is the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi.
Sri Lanka: Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, the world’s first female prime minister happened to be the wife of a previous Sri Lankan Prime Minister (Solomon Bandaranaike) and the mother of Sri Lanka’s third President (Chandrika Kumaratunga.)
Pakistan: Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Bangladesh: Khaleda Zia is the widow of the late dictator Zia ur Rahman. And Hasina Wajed who was the prime minister of Bangladesh is the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh.

This is not a complete list…but it sure tells us what made these women. They certainly didn’t get to where they did by starting at the bottom. They might be highly capable women, but that is not the point, is it? Are highly capable women being allowed to rise to the top job if their husbands and fathers are not political leaders? After all, the real criteria of empowerment of women is when the woman breaks through the glass ceiling…but in these cases the women were way above the glass ceiling right from the start…from their birth!
Actually American women are far more empowered then Indian women or women from the above countries. Consider more statistics. The US has 15% of women in parliament and 14% in ministerial positions! But because the country has never had a woman in the top job, it got a low ranking. On the other hand, India has just 8% of women in parliament and a mere 3% who are ministers. It is unlikely that any of these women can even hope of becoming Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi did stand a chance…but again she is from India’s first political family. Sure, men too benefit from this, as Rajiv Gandhi did, but there are many men who have got to be Prime Minsters without their fathers, mothers or sisters being there first!

Update: Hillary Clinton is standing for President of America. One wonders whether she would have stood a chance if it wasn’t for the fact that her husband was President? I doubt it…I think she would have still been a lawyer. She gave up her law practice only when her husband became President and being the President’s wife must have aroused in her an ambition to become President…and hope as well. I think Britain is one country which can proudly claim that their Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got to where she was on her own, without a political father/mother/brother/husband pedigree.

Related reading: India’s first woman president
Why Indians prefer sons
How the media portrays women
Single mothers face an uphill task
Sex ratio in India
Wife beating in India
Why women fast for their men
Status of women is slowly improving in urban India
Child marraige now illegal

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2006 9:30 pm

    You are absolutely right. In India, the woman empowerment is a myth. What else can explain it better than the fact that we kill girls either at birth or even before birth?
    Your analysis about Indira Gandhi, Khaleda Zia, etc., is very true.
    One does not know what were the yardsticks used by the World Economic Forum for rating various countries in this regard. If you have those details, can you please provide the same? It will be interesting to see those details.

  2. December 12, 2006 6:01 am

    The yardsticks were basically very simple. The two main aspects which were considered were the number of women in politics and also the position they were in. This has been mentioned in my article.
    I do not have the complete survey with me and have gone by the statistics which appeared in a TOI report.

  3. December 13, 2006 3:04 am

    Excellent analysis. You have dug down to the root of the issue and exposed the superficial stats for what they are. Right now, the U.S. is divided over whether to elect Hillary to Presidentship not due to her gender, because of the polarization that accompanies some of her views. But, at the same time, it’s hard to say if she would have been in the running if it weren’t for her husband.

    Honestly though, politics is a popularity contest, so I am not satisfied even if women start making inroads into politics. Most people make their way into politics through networking in the first place, which is not the best indication of social progress, i.e. if a woman is able to make her way through politics from the bottom through able networking, that in itself is a start, but not an end.

    I would happier if they made inroads into technical fields and management as well. Those are hairy issues as well, but just as relevant.

  4. January 31, 2007 10:25 am

    Nita – this got me thinking – here in Canada we have had one female Prime Minister – Kin Campbell(Cons), however my gut feeling at the time was that she was the patsy who was to take the fall of the Cons at the time of the elections. Sort of a “sacrifical virgin” if you like. She is a really smart woman and didn’t deserve this… the boys will always try to retain power, I think.

  5. April 24, 2008 10:46 am

    Although US placed at 66th I must admit American people are very broad minded and accept any person regardless of person’s gender. Fact is no women has ever came forward to take take up gauntlet in us politics until now.

    Its all about ‘wants’ and ‘Needs’. The fact that her husband is former president is one of the motive that Hillary is up there for presidential then she wouldn’t have been lagging behind Obama.

  6. April 24, 2008 5:52 pm

    MiLan, Geraldine Ferraro ran as Vice President, as did Winona LaDuke.

  7. April 25, 2008 3:49 am

    tis is stupid comparison
    all these ladies had famous daddys or sugar daddys
    to back them
    i define political emp differently

  8. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 25, 2008 6:35 am

    This post is about POLITICAL empowerment, so I may be a little bit O/T, but not too wide of the mark, if I compare with the highest echelons of the corporate world. There is a striking difference.

    In Indian politics, while blood or marriage may help launch a woman’s career, in the long run she has to prove herself or she is out in the doghouse.

    By contrast, the corporate sector has many wives, daughters, daughters-in-law, mistresses, who catch the express elevator to the boardroom and remain there virtually for ever. They may not yield much real power at the top, but have enough nuisance value down the line to demoralise a lot of people, and this must affect the business as a whole.

    On the other hand one sees so many women in the Indian business, institutional or bureaucratic world who (with or without an MBA or an IAS) started at an entry level appropriate to their real qualifications and skills, proved themselves at each level to the top, and getting there, did themselves and their company proud. Most of them do not infest page 3, but are well known and highly respected in relevant circles.

    What I find particularly admirable about Indian women in proven-and-earned positions of power (whether in politics or in business) is that most of them do not lose their feminine sensibilities along the way. I do not feel that way about a Hillary Clinton, to name just one name that is currently in the news.

  9. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 25, 2008 6:42 am

    Correction: In para 3 above, “wield”, not “yield”.

  10. Guqin permalink
    April 25, 2008 7:41 am

    More important is: Can women be powerful as women, or do they have to make themselves men in order to become powerful. The second type is still the failure of women for it is still the defeat of femininity and the triumph of masculinity. This is often the blind spot of feminism. To my observation, powerful women in US are of the second type while those in China are of the first type.

  11. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 25, 2008 8:28 am


    A very valuable point, and well put across.

  12. Padmini permalink
    April 25, 2008 10:42 pm

    Another “queen” is Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi who served as MP. Mind boggling but true:)

  13. April 26, 2008 8:14 pm

    This isn’t really relevant but I was reading up on anti-conversion laws and saw that when Pratibha Patil was Governor she refused to bring an anti-conversion bill into Rajasthan and referred it to the President.
    My respect for her increased quite a bit after that: I hadn’t known much about her before she became President and the image of Sonia Gandhi holding her hand and leading her along was kind of indelibly impressed on to my mind.

  14. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 26, 2008 10:52 pm


    I can’t help being a cynic. Did she refer it to the president because she had her own strong beliefs on the subject or was she just passing the buck?

    As for Sonia Gandhi holding her hand and leading her along, it struck me as being pathetic.

  15. April 28, 2008 9:03 pm

    I’m not sure why she referred it to the President. Even it is was about passing the buck though and not standing up for what she believes in — and I don’t know if that is actually the case — it’s still better than being a complete pushover and signing whatever she’s given to sign.
    Rajasthan has apparently passed an amended version of the Bill. I’m not sure if it’s reached her now as the President but if it has, it’ll be interesting to see what she does.

  16. April 29, 2008 5:51 pm

    Indian Express article

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