Merkel, May & Clinton: a gendered reading of global security

Women leaders are better for development—there’s far too much evidence on this already


Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff remains suspended on corruption charges, robbing the world of possibly its most colourful female leader—a former Marxist guerilla against the right-wing Brazilian dictatorship, newspaper editor and a woman once described by a prosecutor as the “Joan of Arc of subversion”. Photo: Reuters
Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff remains suspended on corruption charges, robbing the world of possibly its most colourful female leader—a former Marxist guerilla against the right-wing Brazilian dictatorship, newspaper editor and a woman once described by a prosecutor as the “Joan of Arc of subversion”. Photo: Reuters

In these uncertain times, there’s a very thin sliver of what could just be, potentially—belts and braces here, folks—a silver lining faintly visible around the edges of the dark clouds of Brexit, Trump and ISIS. And it is this: for the first time in the history of humankind, Germany and Britain and—let us drop to our knees with folded hands here—the US, too, will be led by women.

Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton—three women leading some of the most powerful, wealthy and influential nations on this planet. Can you not sense the chemistry already? My feminist friends will mock me for being slightly patronizing for saying this (and I never argue with them), but I think the prospects of this trio dominating the world stage send out an incredibly powerful message.

There’s a frisson of expectations.

What is this message? I can already see the fops pushed into the back room, or to the foreign office in permanent overseas exile. I can see the return of decency in public life. No more lies about prime ministers and dead pigs—remember? That’s what we had sunk to!

I can see the return of a more serious political discourse, perhaps less talk of an eye-for-an-eye, although Clinton’s record as secretary of state here may be a bit of a disadvantage. But maybe she’ll change. Maybe she’ll sense the mood of the American youth (the followers of the leftist Bernie Sanders) and go easy on those drones. And maybe May will do the same (there’s the pressure of Jeremy Corbyn at home).

I can even see the return of respect for international law, as expressed through the will of the United Nations with the further, dazzling prospects of a female UN secretary-general (the campaign is on, by the way).

The three women may be joined by a fourth potentially powerful ally, should Brexit spiral out of control into British disintegration, and even if it doesn’t; she would be Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland. And who might replace her one of these days? The first openly lesbian leader of a major Scottish party, the Tory Ruth Davidson.

It’s not just Davidson. The UK is setting the pace for social liberalism at a breakneck pace. There’s Labour leadership contender Angela Eagle, who in 2008 became the first female member of parliament to enter into a civil partnership in Britain. And on 25 June, amid a gay pride parade, the UK’s minister for gender and equalities (what a wonderfully named portfolio) Justine Greening came out with this well-punned post-Brexit tweet outing herself as a lesbian (a first for the British cabinet): “Today’s a good day to say I’m in a happy same-sex relationship, I campaigned for Stronger In but sometimes you’re better off out! #Pride2016.”

The message is this, and I wouldn’t want to overstate it anymore: in a world increasingly riven with conflict and division, there are two distinct and highly polarized political forces that are jostling to occupy what’s left of the centre stage. On one side are bare knuckled men itching to fight it out—armed Islamic hardliners everywhere, the Republican right in the US, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Zionists who trample on Palestinian rights, Hindus who would want Muslims sent packing to Pakistan, Pakistani generals who would want to divert attention from their failed state to meddle in Kashmir.

On the other side, I believe, is the majority of this divided world, and they are there not just in democracies but also in countries ruled by dictators—China, North Korea and West Asia. Their aspirations, too, are finding an articulation in the kinds of political leaders and politics that are being thrown up. Imagine for a moment that Donald Trump becomes US president. It is he who will have to listen to Merkel, May and others (and there are many others), not the other way round. He will have to learn not to argue or wave his finger at them. For Trump and his followers are in a minority in the West, just as ISIS is in the East.

Merkel, May and Clinton then. This trio, hopefully, will join the steadily growing ranks of female statesmen and leaders around the world—in Liberia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Norway, South Korea, Chile, Mauritius, Poland, Taiwan and Austria, to name a few. Sadly, Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff remains suspended on corruption charges, robbing the world of possibly its most colourful female leader—a former Marxist guerilla against the right-wing Brazilian dictatorship, newspaper editor and a woman once described by a prosecutor as the “Joan of Arc of subversion”.

For all the optimism, I don’t expect the world to be created in the image of Tagore’s “where the mind is without fear”—the poem all Indians grow up with and soon forget—just because women will lead at least two and possibly three of the world’s most powerful nations.

I don’t see the teacups rattling in the hands of brazen ISIS terrorists, for whom women are no more than sex slaves and reproductive vessels. Militants—ISIS or lone wolves—will come hard at these new regimes, as they have at Merkel’s Germany, with their naked contempt for women.

But maybe we are looking at the wrong place to expect change? Of course, Merkel, May and Clinton will confront the evils of sectarianism and violent religious extremism. But on this skewed world stage, they are surrounded by macho male political leaders, dangerous, narcissistic men, whose gloves are off.

I believe a better place to look for change is in the equally important arena of development. Female leaders are better for development—there’s far too much evidence on this already. Just one piece of research into Indian panchayats will suffice here: the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led panchayats was 62% higher than those led by men. Women are also better for women’s empowerment; women’s empowerment is needed for development; and development is crucial for global peace and security.

Did you want evidence of bravery on the field? Here it is: Arrested in 1970 with a gun on her, she was allegedly tortured for 22 days by men who punched her, beat her with a a stick fitted with a ferrule, and gave her electric shocks. She survived. Even bare-chested Putin, riding astride his mare with a gun in his hand, I daresay, can’t top president Rousseff of Brazil.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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