In Taiwan, an unmarried woman became the first female president of the Republic of China. Tsai Ing-wen’s election to Taiwan’s highest office was a landmark event; not only for Taiwanese politics, but for the Asian continent. It marked an important precedent, for unlike many other female leaders in Asia, Tsai is neither a successor nor a torchbearer of an established political dynasty. Tsai found her place in global politics as a single woman and has thrived in an arena that is dominated by men and their first-born sons and daughters.

Image Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office

Asian political dynasties, anchored by strong male leaders of the past, are woven into the fabric of the continent. This trend, while not unique to Asia, has particularly strong roots in the region. From the Nehru-Gandhi, Bhutto and Zia dynasties of South Asia, to the Sukarnos of Indonesia; the source of these families’ resilience in the political arena rests upon a strong foundation of family name as well as the founding story of a male leader who was prominent before, during or after Independence. With these strong roots, a generation of iron ladies of Asia were thrust into the highest level of political power through democratic means.

While their successes are celebrated as achievements in gender equality; the louder voice that is heard is the voice of cynicism from both their fellow man and woman. Their detractors have dismissed their achievements saying that their place in the public imagination is not reflected in the condition of women in general. They have even been called ‘surrogates’ for the men who they are representing and to whom they owe their identity.

The fact that they are forced to step in on the heels of an assassination is forgotten. Instead, they are needlessly criticised as torchbearers of a patriarchal society which, by default, sets them apart from other women. This is despite the fact that they are not spared from patriarchal and sexist attitudes as well as the abuse which ‘ordinary women’ are also vulnerable and subjected to.

The Limits of Economic Prosperity

The structural changes that have occurred in society–such as industrialisation, urbanisation and advancement in education have led families to converge from large extended families all living under-one-roof to nuclear families. The ‘modern family’ as seen in Western Europe and the United States is considered desirable and attainable, especially when it comes to women’s rights. As a result, a set of beliefs and values about western families, including individualism, marriage at a later age, gender equality as well as planned fertility has provided a model for people in other regions.

The decline in fertility rates in much of Asia and the increase in single-person households has drawn attention to the role of gender equity, or lack thereof, which has increased the tensions between women’s growing economic opportunities and the cultural demands of family and childrearing. In most Asian countries, there remain pressures from the older generations–and even the State–to get married and settle down by a certain age, despite the achievements that women have had in all walks of life. This could be attributed to the long-standing Asian tradition of family, and not the individual, as the basic unit of society.

In South Asia, in particular, the family system remains largely patriarchal, with tremendous gender asymmetry in household roles and authority with relatively low labour force participation rates for women. This is despite the fact that much of Asia has made rapid economic and educational strides in recent decades. A significant phenomenon observed throughout Southeast and South Asia is the rapid rise in female educational enrolment rates. Higher tertiary enrolment rates are related to delays in marriage as well as a lower fertility rate. Singapore and Thailand experienced very rapid growth in female tertiary enrolment rates, from below 5% in 1970 to 94.5% and 57.3%, respectively, in 2015.

After graduation, many women find themselves facing a choice: to work or not to work. That is the question. Not having to work is still seen by many as an advantageous decision, especially if one can afford to be financially reliant on a spouse. Having to work can also be seen as an advantageous decision as it leads to greater autonomy and freedom. Japan, the first country in Asia to industrialise after WWII, is the perfect example of a nation where economic growth did not lead to gender equality or increased levels of participation in leadership roles.

While the case for education and its relationship to personal autonomy is a valid one, this relationship does not hold when women choose not to work, prefer not to, or are limited by cultural norms. Following on from that, it can be concluded that economic and educational achievements cannot universally create gender equality. But it can certainly help. Educational opportunities and family support do lay down the foundation for success in any profession–regardless of gender.

It is what allows for a pipe dream to become a hope that will one day become a reality.

The Footsteps of Our Forebears

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been dubbed the Mother of the Nation in Myanmar, is also an international icon for democracy. Her rise to power was elevated by her father, Major General Aung San, who was dubbed the ‘Father of the Nation’ before his assassination. Suu Kyi is not the only offspring of a great political figure whose father’s legacy shaped and paved the road for her to enter politics.

Park Geun-hye, the recently pardoned ex-president of South Korea, also has strong political roots that tie her to her father, General Park Chung-hee, who governed South Korea for 18 years. The case can be made that daughters succeeding fathers has been normalised in Asia as a viable option for succession.

The 18th Presidential Inaugural Ceremony Image Credit: Yeuido

All these Iron Ladies, who stand tall and proud in the footsteps of their forebears, exemplify the hybridisation of democracy and dynastic power in Asia. Almost every Asian country is home to a leading family that passes the baton of power successively over many generations. The formation, existence, survival and continuation of these political dynasties is rooted and re-rooted in the ground through a shared history, a shared culture and a shared past that has the potent power and potential to shape the future.

While political dynasties–democratically-elected or otherwise–exist all around the world, including in the United States, Asia has, for many decades now, hoisted its beloved daughters into politics. Tsai Ing-wen, however, remains the first woman to breakaway from the deeply-rooted pattern of dynastic lineages.

Cynics have argued that the election of female leaders–especially those from an Asian political dynasty–only ever has only a short-lived effect on the state of democracy and women’s rights. The cynics also say that the election of female leaders, while a breakthrough for women’s rights, is in some cases a degradation of the democratic process due to so-called family backing.

The argument can also be made that when seeking to embark on a career, it is simply not far-fetched to follow in the footsteps of one’s father, especially if one’s own mother chose not to work. While experience and exposure are not prerequisites to become the Mother or the Father of a Nation, it certainly cannot be viewed as a liability to have had it.

Perhaps we, as citizens of the world, need to simply stop being so cynical and learn to celebrate the strides we all make in the world.

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