Angela’s angels take on the political patriarchy

By Khaled Diab

Despite the “Merkel miracle”, the political patriarchy remains strong. However, more women are exploiting and even defying it to lead their countries.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Merkel miracle and redefining charisma.
The Merkel miracle and redefining charisma. Image: German government

Angela Merkel has made it to a third term in office. Not being a fan of her conservative austerity and feeling that , not to mention the EU as a whole, needs an injection of progressive radicalism, I had half-wished that the protest Pirate Party would,against the odds, force Germany to change political course.

Still, I have some reason to rejoice. Merkel, as the leader of the EU's largest member state, remains the “most powerful woman” in the world. Merkel is the first woman in Germany to become chancellor, and now she's done that thrice over, in what has been described as the “Merkel miracle.”

This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that Merkel – a scientist and not a politician by training – started off at a severe disadvantage in Germany's post-reunification politics, hailing as she does from East Germany. Often dismissed as “dour” and “too boring for Germany“, some are now talking of the need to redefine “charisma” in light of her understated “charm”.

Like that other poster girl of conservative Europe, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel also has the distinction of being one of the few female heads of government to have made it to the very top of her country's political game on her own steam, and not thanks to being the member of a patriarchal political dynasty, as many others have proven to be.

Take Indira Gandhi in . She was the daughter of Indian independence leader and the country's first premier Jawaharlal Nehru. Prime ministerial surrenderer Sonia Gandhi, wife of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was also connected to the Nehru dynasty.

In neighbouring , the late Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of the popular but disastrous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the daughter of independence leader Sukarno. There were also Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.

China's Soong Ching-ling was married to Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 revolution. The parents of Sri Lanka's Chandrika Kumaratunga both served as prime minister in Sri Lanka. In fact, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was the world's first female prime minister.

Nevertheless, even if these woman did receive an initial leg up from the men in their families, their rise to the very top of the political game required talent. It also highlights an interesting reality, not to mention an intriguing paradox. The West prides itself on being the world leader in female emancipation, yet developing countries, especially in Asia, including quite a few Muslim-majority countries, have apparently delivered significantly more women heads of government.

Despite the fact that Western society is generally more egalitarian, the political, as well as the corporate, upper echelons have remained largely an old boys' club. In the United States, for instance, the only woman who has come within dreaming range of becoming president is , who ended up losing the Democratic nomination to , but may yet become president in the future.

This sole woman has also risen in the political game as her husband's successor. Of course, there's long been talk that Hillary was Bill's de facto vice president, or co-president even, and had a significant unofficial role in running the country, rather like the “Sultanate of Women” in the Ottoman empire of yore. But this notion is also partly fed by the discomfort the patriarchy feels towards a strong and outspoken woman.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this dynastic rule – and, as female emancipation advances, these exceptions are gradually becoming the rule.

In addition to Merkel and Thatcher – who made it in male-dominated politics by becoming honorary members of the patriarchy and not by advocating the cause of gender and female emancipation – there were a number of noteworthy women, usually in small countries, who managed to circumnavigate the boys' club by themselves.

These included self-made lawyer Eugenia Charles in Dominica, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, 's Golda Meir, Australia's Julia Gillard, New Zealand's Helen Clark and Jamaican incumbent Portia Simpson-Miller.

In Europe, there has been Gro Harlem Brundtland in Norway whose presumptive new premier is also a woman, Hanna Suchocka in Poland, the controversial Tansu Çiller in Turkey, and Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine.

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former prime minister of Iceland, had the distinction of being the world's first openly lesbian head of government.

What this reveals is a promising trend in which a growing number of women are leading their countries, and they are doing so solely on their own merit.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 27 September 2013.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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3 thoughts on “Angela’s angels take on the political patriarchy

  • What you say is very true, Manon, and I note that in the article. Grassroots emancipation is strong in most parts of the West and the legal basis is largely there to safeguard women’s rights, at least in principle. This does not mean the patriarchy has died, but it is being combated. However, the picture in more traditional societies is not black and white, and how emancipated sub-groups of women are depends on class and education – which is something that is often overlooked.

  • As those non-Western countries prove on a daily basis, having a female head of state doesn’t necessarily mean anything for the female population. Or would anyone really call Pakistani women’s situation anywhere even remotely close to liberated? While we still have a long ways to go in the West, at least we’ve come along a good stretch of it. After all, I can be a lesbian, hetero without kids, professional, have a stay-at-home husband looking after my offspring…. Even if it isn’t always easy, I get to freely chose my own fate and that, to me, is what it’s all about.

  • Don’t sleep on my personal favorite, Elizabeth Warren.


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