This fascinating book provides a compelling narrative about the life and times of South Asia’s female heads of state. While the content focuses mainly on Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Hasina Wajed, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and Fatima Jinnah, the names of these leaders do not find a place in the headings of the chapters of the book. Instead, we have titles such as ‘Widowed Mother’, ‘Daughter of the East’, ‘Daughter vs. Widow’, ‘Daughter-Widow’, and ‘Exception to the Rule: Sister’, each of which engages with the life of a specific leader, and at once conveys to readers the perspective from which a particular leader is being discussed by the author. The contents are divided into nine chapters; the first couple of chapters, among other things, also highlight the fact that ‘female political leadership in South Asia in the twentieth century was no historical coincidence, anomaly or paradox… it had deep roots in Indian history and culture from the medieval period on… In different regions of the country women were given or secured the right to rule single-handedly… All of these women were widows or daughters of legitimate rulers and belonged to ruling dynasties, which presents a clear parallel to the origins of women leaders in our time’ (emphasis ours) (p. 62). Further, the foray into history enables the author to highlight the few similarities in domestic policies of the female rulers of the past and present, most notably the priorities that female heads assigned to humanitarian and welfare policies (p. 63). While religion was not an important factor, the author, however notes how ‘gender identity of many Indian female rulers was often ambiguous: they could behave both as “true” women and as impersonators of men’ (p. 63). That in the male-dominant, male-centred, ‘destructive’ patriarchal societies (p. 3), of South Asia, women could rise to become prime ministers and presidents has puzzled scholars; the author describes the phenomenon as ‘black swan’ events – black swan being a metaphor for a rare bird and hence, in the South Asian context referring to events considered impossible and contrary to the social make-up of these countries (p. 3). The terms used to describe what facilitated the entry of these women into politics straightaway as heads of the parties founded by their grandfathers, fathers or husbands and thereafter as heads of their respective states—include ‘dynastic’ inheritance of power conferring ‘irrational legitimacy’ due to the predominance of ‘defective’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘illiberal’ democracies (p. 13). ‘Political dynasties always stress the special contributions of their founders and current heirs to the nation’s history, creating a cult of the ruling family that elevates it above ordinary mortals’ (p. 14). The question however remains: why did men accept and/or vote these women to power? In the case of the women leaders studied, the author describes in detail the circumstances that led to the rise and acceptance of these women as leaders at a specific juncture because of a particular concatenation of factors at that juncture, and, in particular ‘when male heirs were lacking for one reason or the other’ (p. 25).
The chapter ‘Woman and Nation’ is extremely interesting for the manner in which it highlights the complexities associated with attempts by female heads of state to delicately balance and constantly negotiate the different and changing understandings of what constitutes the nation and nationalism; while nationalist discourse was used to gain Independence, the same term in the postcolonial era has come to constitute a ‘process in which new patriarchal elites gain the power to produce the generic “we” of the nation. The homogenizing project of nationalism draws upon female bodies as the symbol of the nation to generate discourses of rape, motherhood, sexual purity and heteronormativity’ (p. 88). The fact that no female head of state considered herself to be a feminist did not ipso facto mean that they did not institute policies to address issues of gender justice; however, the interpretation of feminism as an ideology opposing traditional patriarchal values of the family and motherhood undergird ‘the maternal public policies or the politics of maternalism that were employed by female leaders during their terms in office’ (p. 90).In the Epilogue the author brings together some of the more salient findings of her explorations into the lives of these women heads of state. Most of these women were catapulted to their posts consequent to tragic circumstances; while subsequently each had to prove herself worthy of the post through elections, what stood out in each case, according to the author, was their inability to shake off the pressure of the predominant patriarchal culture characterizing each of their societies. The author goes further and states that these women leaders not only distanced themselves from feminism but also ‘even became the instruments for the transmission of this (patriarchal) culture’ (p. 265). While this observation rings true, say, in the case of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, it is less so in the case of Benazir Bhutto, to take only two examples.