The solitude of female politicians in South Asia

To deflect the sexist charge of being barren viragos, female politicians in the region have to deny their sexuality.

A flood-affected couple sits along a flooded roadside under a picture of Jayalalithaa, CM of Tamil Nadu, in Chennai
A flood-affected couple sits along a flooded roadside under a picture of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, on December 6 [Reuters]

All the women who have become heads of government in India have been single. It’s an unwritten job requirement.

Indira Gandhi, who became India’s prime minister, and Nandini Satpathy, Sheila Dixit, Vasundhara Raje, Uma Bharti, Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa Jayaram and Kumari Mayawati, who served terms as provincial chief ministers, were unmarried or separated or widowed at the moment of their ascension and through their time at the top.

Sonia Gandhi doesn’t figure in this list because she didn’t actually hold political office despite being president of the Congress Party when it led a governing coalition for a decade. Had she chosen to become prime minister, she would have borne out the rule. Women who rule in modern India can have no consorts.

This is something of a South Asian rule. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the modern world’s first female head of government, became prime minister of Ceylon in 1960 following the assassination of her husband, Solomon Bandaranaike, during his term as prime minister in 1959.

Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, the first woman president of Sri Lanka between 1994 and 2005, was widowed six years before she became president, when her husband was assassinated in 1988.

Begum Khaleda Zia, the first female prime minister of Bangladesh, was the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, president of Bangladesh, assassinated in 1981.

Opposite of female emancipation

What does this say about South Asian politics and the position of women within it? First of all, it testifies to the fact that politics in South Asia is savagely violent. It tells us that family connections in South Asia trump gender prejudice when it comes to high political office.

This doesn’t mean that South Asian electorates are emancipated in some feminist way. It means the reverse; they are so patriarchal that the charisma of a male relative can be posthumously transferred. A male politician can halo his widowed wife, his orphaned daughter, even his bereaved mistress, with political legitimacy, but this legitimacy comes at a price.

The female successor must be publicly celibate. A woman who is a prime minister or a chief minister in the sub-continent can’t – even by implication – be sexually active. She has to be neutered by singleness because sexuality in a woman isn’t – as it is for a man – a sign of potency, it’s a mark of weakness, of susceptibility.

A public man is a statesman; a public woman is something else again. For a female politician to be virtuous she needs to be insulated from carnality by spinsterhood or widowhood.

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There’s another reason, unrelated to sexuality, that makes it almost impossible for a married woman to hold high political office. Since husbands in South Asia think they own their wives, a married woman is often seen as a puppet – not an autonomous political actor.

This is the Lalu Yadav syndrome. The erstwhile chief minister of Bihar installed his wife, Rabri Devi, as a place-holder chief minister of the state while he was serving time in jail for corruption. Regardless of how charismatic or independent a woman is, the only way for her to escape the stigma of being a male ventriloquist’s dummy is to dispense with men altogether.

Bearing the male’s legacy

There are two exceptions to this rule. Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female prime minister, was married to Asif Zardari right through her political career. Sheikh Hasina, now in her second term as prime minister of Bangladesh, served out a full term as prime minister between 1996 and 2001 as a married woman. How did they sidestep the stigma of being sexed creatures, subordinate to a male keeper?

It’s worth remembering that while Benazir Bhutto and Sheikh Hasina weren’t widowed, they were violently orphaned. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, was judicially executed by the military usurper, Zia-ul-Haq, while Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a military coup along with most of his family.

The springboards for their political careers were their fathers’ “martyrdoms”. Benazir Bhutto only ever referred to her father as “shaheed” (martyr) while Sheikh Hasina’s entire political career as prime minister has been devoted to reinstating her father’s legacy and punishing the individuals, parties and institutions that had conspired to murder him.

It's curious that attempts of women to replicate the political authority that their male counterparts take for granted, should be gendered and then read as a peculiarly feminine failure to create a fraternal, rational politics.


Each ruled, literally, in the name of their fathers. This single-minded fidelity to a dead man’s legacy kept each from being owned in the public eye by her living male consort.

While female heads of government in India have to be single, their public personas are shaped by the nature of this singleness. Widows with children are differently regarded from women who have never been married and who don’t have children.

Indira Gandhi, Sheila Dixit, Nandini Sathpathy and Vasundhara Raje were humanised by their families: A single woman with children can be placed as someone who was once a wife and is still a mother.

Indians understand the web of family attachments that shapes a woman’s life. They understand dynastic succession even when they don’t approve of it. That Indira followed her father, Nehru, or that she wanted her sons to succeed her wasn’t nepotism, it was normality.

Authoritarian harpies?

Powerful, unmarried, childless women are seen as unnatural and, in the end, unnerving. Kumari Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Uma Bharti and Jayalalitha Jayaram, who have all been provincial chief ministers, have nothing in common except for the fact that they are single women.

Mayawati is a Dalit woman from India’s Western Uttar Pradesh region. Mamata Banerjee is a Brahmin raised in shabby genteel poverty who single-handedly saw off the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Uma Bharti is a “backward caste” woman who took her vows and became a jogin, a sort of Hindu nun. Jayalalithaa was an English-speaking Brahmin who first became famous as a film star in Tamil movies.

And yet, if you were to trawl newspapers or news television for the way they are described, you could be forgiven for thinking they were a single person: an authoritarian harpy who rules via a cult of personality that reduces party colleagues to acolytes and policy to whimsical, self-aggrandising gestures.

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The point is not that this description is inaccurate: Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa did and do rule as party supremos with no peers; not for them the polite liberal fiction of being first among equals.

Jayalalithaa required and received public slavishness from her ministers and party men and so, to a lesser degree, do Mamata and Mayawati. The sexism of this stereotype lies in the fact that these traits are seen as noteworthy in a political culture where the cult of personality is the norm and where the performance of deference is mandatory.

Submitting to male norms

In Indian politics powerful male chief ministers such as Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav routinely ran electoral despotisms within which the only currency of preferment was sycophancy.

It’s curious that attempts of women to replicate the political authority that their male counterparts take for granted, should be gendered and then read as a peculiarly feminine failure to create a fraternal, rational politics.

The ease with which governments headed by women are seen as practitioners of “harem politics” where decisions grow out of intrigue, hysteria and suspicion, tells us more about the inadequacies of men than it does about the rule of women.

The unnaturalness of womanly rule is experienced as the emasculation of men. Governments headed by women are disparaged as monstrous, because the men who serve in them are seen as political eunuchs. To submit to the absolute authority of a woman is to be unmanned.

The triumph of women such as Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Mamata is that they manage to beat the odds in a predatory male world to reach the top. To stay there, to deflect the sexist charge of being barren viragos, they have, ironically, to further deny their sexuality by recasting themselves as nurturing kin to their constituencies.

It’s not a coincidence that Jayalalithaa is Amma (mother) to her voters, Mayawati is Behenji (sister) and Mamata is Didi (older sister). Fictive kin roles normalise these remarkable single women. Their tragedy is that these are necessary avatars because no matter how powerful they become, the one thing they cannot be is themselves.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. He teaches history at the Jamia Millia Islamia and his most recent book is a collection of essays, Homeless on Google Earth.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.