Women in politics: The women on top

So tell me about your husband…

A month after Benazir Bhutto’s death, at the other end of the globe, another woman is fighting to lead her nation. Hillary Clinton’s campaign to be nominated by the Democratic Party as its next candidate for the office of the United States president could not be farther from the danger-ridden, intrigue-filled political climate in which her late counterpart, Benazir was campaigning a mere month ago. Yet many of the same questions plague Hillary’s rise to the forefront of American politics as were posed by commentators writing on the legacy of Benazir.

In his estimation of the legacy of Benazir in Time Magazine, William Dalrymple reminded readers that despite being a woman and educated at Oxford, Benazir’s rise to power was the result of the political legacy she inherited from her father. In his piece, Dalrymple, careful not to undermine the tragic circumstances of Benazir’s death, sought to make the point that while her rise in Pakistani politics was commendable, her own politics was notably feudal, traditional and not necessarily friendly to institutional reform.

Commentators other than Dalrymple have also pointed out the meddlesome interference of her husband in politics, a fact that has sparked more debate since his ascendance as PPP co-chair following Benazir’s death. The cumulative inference of these critical observations, suggests that while indeed a woman, Benazir did not deserve “feminist” credentials often awarded to her because her rise was not based on her own steam but rather on the political legacy she had inherited.

Ironically, similar criticism plagues Hillary’s campaign. In recent days, her husband, former President Bill Clinton who has been actively helping his wife’s campaign, has come under fire for being too aggressive in his efforts on behalf of Hillary. Some speeches made by Clinton on Hillary’s campaign trail have set off debates on whether another Clinton White House would be too influenced by former President Clinton.

Beneath these criticisms lie the existing denunciations of Hillary for the fact that she is riding not simply on her own achievements but on her husband’s legacy and name recognition in the United States. Add to these the criticism of dynastic politics that American politics is disturbingly becoming dominated by political dynasties with the last decade and a half being dominated by either the Bush or the Clinton family. This last point, which can no longer hurt Bush for obvious reasons, is directed sharply at Clinton with the suggestion that voting for her may somehow be harming the very structure of American democracy and the tradition of voting for leaders who rise on their own merits rather than on their family connections.

In drawing the comparison between the criticisms of these two women, I do not wish to minimise the stark and un-ignorable differences between the Pakistani and American political contexts. Indeed, the very term “dynastic politics” refers to completely different institutional structures in the two countries. In Pakistan, a country dominated by feudal and tribal hierarchies where few “self-made” political actors can ever ascend to positions of political power, family legacies signify a power and claim to electoral support that is unheard of in the United States. Ample evidence of this can be found both in the annals of Pakistan’s history replete as it is by a recurrence of the same political actors, as by the more contemporary installation of Bilawal Bhutto as the co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party. It is unlikely that Chelsea Clinton, Bill and Hilary’s daughter can ever make such claims to the leadership of the Democratic Party in the United States.

Yet the persistent criticism levelled at both these women, of riding on the shoulders of others, of benefiting from the work done by men leads to the crucial question that all women, all feminists supporting them are forced to ask: Must we denounce Hilary or Benazir because of their last names that could pave the otherwise rough road to political power?

Ultimately, their ascendance poses to the feminists the vexing question: Is a true feminist leader only one whose ascendance to power is in no way trammelled by the presence of a husband or a father? In other words, how must we come to terms with our unspoken ideal of female leadership: a woman who rises without the aid of a President husband or a Prime Minister father? Is our ideal of a feminist leader a self-made woman, one who relentlessly and unfailingly champions women’s rights above all else, one that fails to accommodate the realities of political compromise involved in leadership positions where women lead both women and men?

The similarity of the criticisms levelled at the late Benazir Bhutto during her political career and those faced by Hillary Clinton literally a world away also present some lessons in terms of the particular gender-biased challenges faced by female political actors.

Male political candidates around the world routinely capitalise on the power of their families, the political legacies of fathers, brothers and grandfathers, yet they don’t get blasted for this – or at least not so ruthlessly.

Perhaps then it is safe to allege that feminists around the world should not fall prey to holding the real examples of female leadership offered up to us in the late Benazir Bhutto and Hillary Clinton to a standard that judges them on a basis stricter than that applied to men who have the same aspirations.

The realities of the supportive role of political legacies, of name recognition in democratic politics is an unarguable one, as is the reality that the rise of women can never realistically be built entirely on the shoulders of other women. The search for a feminist leader must not be marred by a misguided search for perfection that blinds us to the courage and capabilities of real female leaders who have fought their way to the top.

Rafia Zakaria is associate editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney and member of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women. She teaches courses on constitutional law and political philosophy. This article previously appeared in Daily Times (Pakistan).

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