History has always depicted ‘his story’ the story of great male figures. ‘Her story’ has been regarded as the exception. Simone de Beauvoir summed up this distinction “The superiority of the male is indeed overwhelming: Perseus, Hercules, David, Achiles, Launcelot, the French warriors, Du Geslin and Bayard, Napoleon – so many man for one Joan of Arc” .
The reality for many women leaders is that they often have to perform twice as well as men to be accepted as equals. At the same time, society expectations and maternal instincts require them to shoulder equivalent responsibilities at home as well. Compared to their male counterparts who have always been stereotyped as the gender who leads, the woman’s path to power has been onerous. The eternal balancing act women must perform between the domestic sphere and their public sphere has been largely unseen and unappreciated. Hence this paper dubbed them the chameleon fighter and the barrier breakers – for the many different roles they play, the barriers they overcome and their perseverance in bringing about excellence in their respective fields.
People have been accustomed to recognizing as leaders only those who hold formal or positional posts on an organizational grid. However leaders can come in many different forms. They are a special breed of people who are willing to spend countless hours in pursuing issues, projects sustained by this vision they believe in and which in one way or another have an impact on the lives of people around them. Woman leaders can either be the President of a country, a democracy fighter, an advocate or even our mothers. This paper wishes to recognize the woman leaders in Asia who have overcome socioeconomic, racial and national boundaries to be where they are today
Whats so remarkable about these women?
In Asia, most countries remain pre-dominantly patriarchal. Women are relegated to culturally defined ‘domestic roles’ The percentage of women holding local government seats in the Asia-Pacific ranges from 2 to 33 percent, says a study commissioned by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific.
Women political leaders in Asia have mostly rose to power in times of crisis and inherited their family power usually a father or a husband ( e.g Corazon Aquino, Violeta Chamorro, Indira Ghandi, Isabel Peron). Compared to women political leaders in the west such as Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir, very few women in Asia rose to power without the help of connections from powerful families. Nevertheless that does not make their path of leadership any lighter or easier. They faced even greater challenges as they have to carry on the legacy of their male predecessors or even surpass them in their rule. They may have to rival with attempted coups d’etat or constant opposition from their male counterparts to stay on in power. As President Aquino aptly puts it, holding on to power in the face of illegitimate challenges was a greater challenge than achieving power.
President Aquino – The woman who broke the barriers of impossibility
In 1986, Aquino became the first woman to be president of the Philippines after leading a peaceful revolution overthrowing the Marcos regime.
The first impossibility – a ‘peaceful’ revolution.
Stalin claimed that “you can’t make a revolution with silk gloves.” Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the British 19th century novelist, believed that “revolutions are not made with rose water.” On the campaign trail and even on the day of voting, it became clear that Aquino’s main asset was, quite simply, herself and her faith in God. By reviving the promise of democracy without bloodshed, all too rare in the past, Aquino probably disproved the theories of a ‘revolution’.
The second impossibility – conquering the male dominated political hierarchy.
In a nation dominated for decades by a militant brand of macho politics, she conquered with tranquility and grace. To come to power, Aquino had only to be herself. But to stay in power, she had to transcend herself. She had successfully transformed herself from a self-effacing lady to a self-confident leader. Her success in doing so had gained respect even in the While House. From their initial doubts about this petite grandmother’s ability to rule to a state department official’s comments on how Aquino had “ hard – bitten politicians eating out of her hands”, she had certainly still many of the doubts about her ability to govern.
The third impossibility – picking up the mess.
Aquino had also disprove the predictions of her husband, who used to say that whoever succeeded Marcos was “doomed to fail” because of the troubles the person would inherit. She ended up with that chaos, communist threats and a weak economy. In addition, she enjoyed no transition period and no advance planning. To make matters worse, she has had to manage a three-party government made up of moderates, leftists and the military. However ever since she came into power, her presence and her free enterprise policies have already restored a little business confidence. Despite repeated coup attempts and a mixed record of success, Corazon Aquino remained in office for more than six years.
The fourth impossibility – maintaining a balance between her private life and her public life
Aquino recognized that in mastering politics, there is a danger of politics mastering her. She may become less and less the ordinary person – attending PTA meetings, making pasta and praying with her children. Her struggles in trying to maintain this balance between acting like a President and like a mother to her children or even a friend to her close ones suggests the challenge of the many different roles she has to play and play it well.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Burmese dissident leader :The woman who breaks the barrier of oppression
Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the pre-democracy movement and co-founder of the National League for Democracy of Burma. She has been under house arrest for nearly 6 years because of her attempts to introduce democratic reforms into her country. Her courageous leadership of the nonviolent struggle for the restoration of human rights and democracy in her country has won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Making a difference in the lives of oppressed people in her country – Her moral courage and activism.
She is an inspirational leader who identifies with the struggle of her country. She took it upon herself to form a democratic system of government in which all the regions and ethnic groups of Burma would be represented. Her single – minded persistence in attaining a goal, an unswerving determination and steadfastness of purpose prevent her from giving up even in the face of persecution and adversity.
She has also pleaded with leaders around the world to support the Burmese quest for democracy and unity. For her courage, determination and perseverance, she is internationally recognized and countries all over the world have supported her cause. Her activism is a symbol also of the greater political role women can play in Asia and how women are capable of making a difference.
Anamah Tan – solicitor and more importantly, the woman who breaks the barrier of woman’s under representation in Singapore.
A leader in the legal circle.
Anamah Tan is a leader in the many different roles she play. She started up her own company Ann Tan & Associates in 1984 and has been well known in the legal circle as a devoted and dedicated family lawyer. Her passion for her legal work and the desire to do service to the community led her to become one of the founders of the Singapore Association of Woman Lawyers. The clinic was started 22 years and till today has grown into 17 centres supported by woman lawyers giving free legal aid to the community.
A leader in the community of woman, an activist for the rights of woman.
Anamah is also benevolently known as the ‘mother of all woman’s organisation’ in Singapore. She was the President of the Singapore Council of Woman’s Organizations from 1992 to 2000. It is an umbrella body of 40 women’s organizations who is committed to advance the cause of women. One of its many goals is to promote and improve the status of women especially in education, economics, social welfare and community involvement, culture and sports. Her popularity and her excellence in this field is seen in her recurring nominations for President four times in a row – a feat no other female achieved!
A leader in her family.
Anamah has been a single parent for more than 10 years. She was not put down by her unhappy and painful experience. She learned how to cope and more importantly gathered courage and determination in these difficult years. She did not go into pieces but picked up her pieces and painted a beautiful picture with all that she has achieved thus far. She has succeeded not only in the different contributions she made to society but in her family she is the leader to her children, a courageous mother who had overcome the odds of being a single parent.
A leader to the young woman of Singapore.
For all her successes in the legal circle or her active fight for the rights of woman, she is friendly, humble, kind and approachable. She is not your hard and aggressive fighter for woman’s rights instead her matronly approach has win her support young and old, political and apolitical alike. She is the epitome of a true woman leader – dedicated, fervent and enthusiastic in pursuing her goals yet humble and never forgetting her roots at the end of the day.
Mothers— the unrecognized leader in the household.
Mothers are women leaders of the house. Their leadership in their homes has more often than not been overlooked and discounted. They play a great and crucial role in shaping their children to be what they are when they grow up.
All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” -Abraham Lincoln
Modern mothers often have to make sacrifices in their careers, some even giving up their dreams completely in order to nurture their children and take care of the household. For the million things she gave up and give to the family, for the perseverance in managing the household, for the heartache and unseen tears shed for her children, for the love she emblems, for the role model she always has to be, mothers truly deserve our respect and recognition for the providing the guiding light in all the children’s lives
What can be done to recognize and improve woman leadership roles in Asia?
In the political arena, perhaps Asia governments could take a leaf from Norway to impose a minimum number of female representatives in the government in order to encourage female leaders to rise up and not be overshadowed by barriers posed by the patriachial societies. This will enhance a qualitative change in decision-making through women’s role as transformative leaders, promoting a gender agenda and good governance.
In the business arena, barriers to equal access to credit, finance, science and technology and market development are still very real. Women entrepreneurs need to come together and forge alliances to support other aspiring women entrepreneurs.
Government and economic communities should not impose glass ceilings and must recognize that female can play a potent role in leading the economy as well as the country. Women can be more consensus oriented and empathetic than men. Even as some of the countries in Asia such as China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia have signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) many of these have not taken specific steps to implement the Convention. E.g. Women still form a very small minority in the governments of the countries mentioned.
The legacy the above women left which make them such great leaders is their ability to break the insurmountable barriers which challenge them in their individual role. All of them tackled their barriers or even unpleasant experiences with equanimity. President Aquino overcame the male dominated political hierarchy to be the President of Philippines. She also overcame all odds by gaining the respect of even the first world countries leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi bore the barrier of opposition and persecution from the Burmese militant government in her pursue of democracy for her country. Anamah Tan recognizes the unequal playing field for woman in Singapore and speaks up for it in the various women organizations she took part to form. Lastly, a tribute paid to all mothers who are leaders in the hearts of their little children.