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Asia seeing more female leadership

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For centuries, Asian politics were dominated by men and organized under patriarchal structures.

But in the late 1900s and early 2000s, that began to change. Today, several prominent Asian nations boast female heads of state, but some observers say that hasn’t necessarily translated into progressive reforms for women. Seungsook Moon, a sociology professor at Vassar College, will discuss the trend toward female leadership in Asia in a lecture titled “Women Political Leaders in Asia: Are They Gender Game Changers?” The lecture, on Sunday at the UNM Continuing Education Conference Center, is part of the Albuquerque International Association’s ongoing series on women in global politics.

“My talk intends to help the audience think critically and informatively about the issue of women political leaders beyond the superficial view that they are significant for women in these societies,” Moon said in an email in response to the Journal‘s questions.

As it turns out, all current Asian female leaders are products of political dynasties, Moon said. Most recently, South Korea elected Park Geun-hye to the presidency. She is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1979. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first president. Meanwhile, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“They all benefited from their familial ties to prominent male political leaders who were their fathers, husbands, and older brothers,” Moon said. “This means that their high social status derived from their membership in politically elite families is more significant than their female gender.”

Moon also said these “political pedigrees” don’t seem to translate routinely to more emphasis on gender equality in Asian countries with female leadership.

“The mere presence of women at the top of the state does not automatically open doors for other women unless other social and economic conditions are ready and supportive of such change,” she said. “The overarching significance of their political pedigree suggests that such women political leaders are likely to be less conscious of gender issues unless their political parties strongly promote progressive nationalism that stresses social justice and gender equality.”

While skeptical of the changes these female leaders are likely to make on behalf of women, Moon said their mere presence at the top of political hierarchies in Asia is significant.

“These changes are neither automatic nor easy,” she said. “While we don’t need to deny certain popular excitement and high hope that women as presidents or prime ministers can generate, there are long and complicated ways between such image and the reality of gender equality and social justice in many societies.”

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