How the Global South beat the North to the development of Female leaders
Earlier this month, Joyce Banda became the president of Malawi after the passing of President Bingu Wa Mutharika. In doing so, she became only the second female president on the continent after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (a few other countries have had female prime ministers and interim leaders as well.) More interestingly, however, is that she joins the growing list of female leaders coming out of the global South or Less Economically Developed Countries-LEDCs), which is at somewhat striking odds with their more developed Northern counterparts.
Of the 23 current female heads of state, 15 are from the global south. While Africa is only starting to add to the trend, South Asian countries have a long tradition of female leaders, while Latin America has recently been regularly producing female presidents and candidates. Indeed, it is easy to brush away the statistic as being purely incidental; after all, that ratio seems to mirror the fact that the south makes up almost two thirds of the countries in the world. Besides, 23 leaders provide a sample way too small to draw any conclusions from- and the disparity is even less pronounced when we throw in the female monarchs (for ex. Queen Elizabeth*) into the equation, right? Well, in a global system in which developed nations supposedly outpace the rest of the world in providing fairer opportunities, and in which developing nations tend to hold on to patriarchal values and are often castigated for their treatment of equal and human rights, there is something to be said for the growing number of female leaders coming out of the global south.
When Hillary Clinton ran for office in 2008, there was a distinct ‘IsAmerica ready for a female president?” undertone, despite her years of experience and a phenomenal campaign. When a Malawian senior government official and the First Lady (Mutharika’s wife) raised the same sentiment regarding Joyce Banda’s candidacy, they were shrugged as being elitist and baseless by Banda and the masses.
So what, then, is it that facilitates this seemingly logic-defying trend of female leaders growing out of societies in which they have everything stacked against them? Pundits and commentators have outlined a few theories, and here goes:
1. Historic Precedence
African creationist legends almost always identify with a feminine deity or creative force. Female Shamans serve as mediums between the human realm and the supernatural across the continents. In ancient Egypt, very few have a legacy that can rival that of Cleopatra.In Hinduism, the Tridevi (‘’3 Goddesses”) are as much a part of Trimurti (the Great Trinity) which they compliment.
The narrative is distinctly different in most northern cultures, where the prevailing motif in, for example, fairy tales, is that the role of woman is to be pretty and wait for a heroic male. One can also observe an absence of female heroes in the Judeo-Christian value system that generally governs the global north, except maybe as providing support for the male heroic figure. Thus, it can be argued that, even when the winds of fate blowing against them, there is a tradition of women rising to positions of power in the south.
The absence of female heroes in the north is not necessarily testament to a neglect of status on any either side’s part; but rather, a result of #2, which is,
2. 'Glorious’ Female Roles
The role of women in the rising of the developed world cannot be understated. Indeed, the very story of the global north would be hard to imagine without accounting the likes of Betsy Ross, Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Lynde Dix etc. A second look at this impressive list, however, will show the underlying trend that runs through prominent northern women; they excel in roles that are tailor-made for women. The list above includes tailors and nurses- women who showed their heroism in duties specific to females (at the time.)
In southern communities, the sentiment of female ‘glory’ in feminine roles is glaringly absent. It is partly due to the patriarchal nature of many of these societies, and a subsequent biased or provincial telling of the female story. Women who had outdone themselves in their gender specific roles were only applauded locally. The idea that women held no laudable roles in social development outside their feminine duties in their homes only pushed the women to take a stance and often match (and outpace) their male counterparts in nation-building. Thus, it should be no surprise that the story of the Zimbabwean resistance against colonization begins with Mbuya Nehanda, a nationalist leader who rallied people in defiance; or when Ngugi Wa Thingo’s Grain of Wheat describes Wambui outwitting the oppressive forces in the Kenyan Independence War. Next to Nelson Mandela and a few others, his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was on the forefront of the anti-Apartheid movement and is often called ‘Mother of the Nation’.
In the absence of celebrated roles specific to women in the bigger picture, women of the south have always had to step up to the place where impact is gender neutral. The Mandelas’ situation is a great instance of
3. Family Ties
Indira Gandhi. Isabel Peron. Mireya Moscoso. Megawati Sukarnoputri. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. All renowned female leaders; all took office after a male member of the family had held the same post (usually fathers husbands, and in some cases, brothers.)
The culture and constitutional mandates of the progressive north, added to their relative political stability, often dictates a clear path to succession in which a vice president will smoothly transition into office after the demise of the incumbent, or elections are just held in time. In countries with unstable systems and revolutionary movements, the leaders often arise from a strongly knit family unit and thus it is very often the case that the husband, wife and children are all on the forefront of the movement. Also, institutionalized nepotism is viewed with disdain across the developed world, but it is often seen as virtuous in order to keep the essence of a value system in place intact.
Overly-involved spouses have generally been frowned upon in US politics, and the usually-influential and charismatic first ladies often become the champions of social causes while steering away from politics. Of course, Hillary Clinton would be the exception to this rule, and even then, her connection to Bill Clinton often came up negatively in her historic 2008 campaign.
4. The Absence of (recent) Revolution
For the most part, the north has enjoyed relative stability over the past century. Indeed, they have endured the World Wars and economic tribulations, but they have done so with resilience and robustness. On the other hand, the global south has been left battered by colonialism, civil wars, political and economic upheaval; all conditions which create an environment ripe for revolutions galore. As it were, revolution intrinsically robs communities of the ability to discriminate: when the backs are against the wall, everyone is called into battle. Thus when we look at the likes of President Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesia) or Aquino of the Philippines, we see the somewhat level playing field that revolution provides. This theory is supported further by the rise of women like Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks as faces of minorities' revolution, even in developed nations.
The idea of revolution, together with some of the points made earlier, make for a great segue into the last of the theories
5. The ‘hardening’ of the Southern Woman
Now let us be clear: the odds are still staked against women all around the women; whether they are the subject to honor killings in the Middle East or trying to break past the ‘glass ceiling’ in the United States. Stigmas are often both individual and institutional.
That said, the progressive modern societies of the north are light years ahead of most developing nations in providing basic rights and opportunities for women. For example, a girl born in the developed world is, from the onset, granted the ability to attend school without her shot at education being sacrificed for her brother’s. The educational path is currently such that women actually make up to 57% of the American college population. She also does not live in fear of being married off at an early age, among other social habits that might inhibit her ability to establish a professional and social platform.
On the other hand, the crop of influential females from the global south includes: women who had to make their way through rudimentary schooling after their parents had used their meagre resources on educating their brothers; women who had to leave their homes to go overseas for a college education; women who have been on the forefront of bush wars and revolutions; women who have commanded the attention of the male populace in ‘machismo’-tainted patriarchal societies; women who have been arrested and exiled by the political opposition, women who have had to distinguish themselves as one of the leader’s several wives etc. Point being; by the time a woman in the developing world is even being mentioned in the context of state leadership, she has defied any gender standard that would make people question her frailty.
Indeed, there is still plenty ground to cover in political institutions until the door is open to women leaders as it is for men. While we wait, however, it is worth observing the apparent anomaly of female heads of state and their growing number in the global south.
Out of the rugged, thorny terrain of the developing nations’ society, the rose of female leadership continues to bloom.
(*the Queen of England and other monarchs were left out of reckoning for the purposes of this article: predetermined heirs to the throne do not speak much to the dynamic of how nations choose and accept their leaders)