Why no female leaders in East Asia?

By Binod Singh (
Updated: 2010-09-22 09:49
Large Medium Small

It was not until during and just after the World War I that the first few women became members of the revolutionary governments in Ukraine, Russia, Hungary and Ireland. Nina Bang, Danish Minister of Education 1924-26, was the first woman to be minister in democratically elected parliamentary government. In 1960 Sirivamo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the world's first female elected prime minister.

If we look back into the last few decades, we find several precedents of the rise of women (such as the rise of Indira Gandhi in India, Margret Thatcher in England, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khalida Jiya in Bangladesh). The latest name added in the list was Julia Gillard rise to take over from Kevin Rud as Australia's first women Prime Minister. Earlier we have seen women leaders occupying the top job in Columbia, Ukraine, Germany, India (since 2004, Sonia Gandhi is the top most leader in the country) and many other developing and developed countries. But the story in East Asia is until now is very different.

There is no doubt that in the second half of the last century, the women of East Asia have contributed immensely to the economic wealth of their country. They had also taken part in the political and social revolution of their country which preceded the economic one. They have also competed with their international peers and excelled in different realms of development. But when it comes to occupy the political post they are still waiting to be added with the prefix of "the first women" leader of their country.

As a China observer, I predicted that the then Chinese vice Premier Madam Wu Yi might become the first Chinese women to set an example for other East Asian countries. But I was proven wrong in 2007 reshuffle of the leadership in China.

What could be blocking their road to the ultimate rise is unknown to many East Asia observers. Although, my knowledge of Confucian society is still limited, but the famous Chinese sage has never openly subjected women only next to their male counterpart. Imperial China has had one women emperor during the mighty Tang dynasty in the name of Wuzetian, but she is the only example in the three thousand old year history of China.

On the other hand, the political system in Japan and Korea has been functioning in democratic style for decades but still we can hardly remember the name of a single famous women leader there who made a lasting impact. Modern Japan has been slow in its promotion of women to top posts not only in politics but also in business. This also applies to South Korea.

Many East Asians find it puzzling that despite South Asia being a patriarchal, caste-ridden male dominant mystical society it has the credit of producing several outstanding women leaders. Also the socio-economic condition of South Asian women has seen only marginal improvement in the post-war era. The space here does not allow us to discuss it in detail. But we can attempt to define this phenomenon in the rigid family structure of South Asians.

The mantra of success for the South Asian women is that: "If your father is a great man, you are also destined to be great." There is no sex discrimination when it comes to inherit the parental legacy in South Asia. One can apply this proposition to the women leaders I have mentioned above. Bollywood famous movie "AWARA" which was a great hit across China, gave the similar message. The message was that a judge son cannot become a bandit. Yes, the parental legacy could be also some time a great obligation and no son or daughter can get away with this.

Therefore, it was not just a mere coincident that many of the women leaders in South Asia happen to be the daughters of their great fathers. They dared to take forward their father's legacy and obligations in the same spirit which a male child is supposed to do.

This phenomenon is true across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other South Asian societies in their post-independent history. In East Asian societies we find it rare that the female child will inherit her father's legacy.

Nevertheless, the situation seems optimistic for them in the 21st century, as many women from East Asian countries have occupied some challenging jobs at international bodies such as the United Nations.

In the late 1990s, the Japanese lady Ogata Sadako did managed successfully the challenging job of working as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In the year 2006, Dr. Margaret Chan's election to the post of Director General of WHO is an outstanding example.

The road to the top most for women in East Asia may not be far away but they lag behind compared to other regions of the world. It is because in the Post War era, no women have risen to occupy the top most of leadership in any of the three main East Asian countries i.e. China, Japan and Korea. At the same time this is also true for a number of other countries.

Although currently, there are 30 female leaders in 28 different countries at the moment, but in the most of the Arab world we could hardly find a single women in their governments at the moment. Last but not the least, the world's greatest and oldest democracy that is United States of America is still deprived of a female president.

The Writer is a foreign teacher at Beijing Foreign Studies University and can be contacted at