When hearing about women’s rights in the Muslim world, the assumed story is often exclusively one of oppression, marginalisation and lack of power. However, many often forget that eight countries have had Muslim women as their head of state. This is compared to the fact that neither of the two major US parties – Democrats and Republicans – has ever nominated a female presidential candidate.
Tansu Çiller: Prime Minister of Turkey 1993-1996
Tansu Penbe Çiller – born 24 May 1946 – is a Turkish academic, economist and politician who served as the 30th Prime Minister of Turkey from 1993 to 1996. She is Turkey’s first and only female prime minister to date. As the leader of the True Path Party, she went on to concurrently serve as Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey and as Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1996 and 1997.
After the death in office of President Turgut Özal (which according to some was part of the 1993 alleged Turkish military coup), DYP Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel won the 1993 presidential election on 16 May 1993. Suddenly the important position as Prime Minister and leader of the DYP was vacant. The party found itself in an identity crisis. Ciller was no obvious candidate, but the three male contenders could not muster the resources, skill and support to compete effectively. Ciller was a professional urban woman, young and smart with a Western higher education. The media supported her, as well as the business community, and externally she gave the impression that Turkey was a progressive Muslim country. On 13 June 47 year old Çiller fell 11 votes shy of a majority in the first ballot for party leader. Her opponents withdrew and she became the party’s leader and on 25 June, the Prime Minister of the DYP-Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) coalition government (50th government of Turkey).
Megawati Sukarnoputri: President of Indonesia 2001-2004
Megawati Setiawati Sukarnoputri – born 23 January 1947 – is an Indonesian politician who served as president of Indonesia from 23 July 2001 to 20 October 2004.
Megawati is the leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, one of Indonesia’s largest political parties. She is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.
Megawati has been Indonesia’s only female president and the fourth woman to lead a predominantly Muslim nation. She is also the first Indonesian leader to be born after Indonesia proclaimed independence. After serving as vice-president to Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati became president when Wahid was removed from office in 2001. She ran for re-election in the 2004 presidential election, but was defeated by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. She sought a rematch in the 2009 presidential election, losing again to Yudhoyono.
Mame Madior Boye: Prime Minister of Senegal 2001-2002
Mame Madior Boye was Prime Minister of Senegal from 2001 to 2002. She was the first female holder of that position.
Following the victory of Abdoulaye Wade in the 2000 presidential election, Boye became Minister of Justice in April 2000. But tensions arose between the President and the Prime Minister, who was from another political party. Moustapha Niasse resigned and Boye was appointed by Wade as Prime Minister on 3 March 2001, two months before the legislative elections. Wade lacked a majority in the legislature and more than 30 non-partisan women’s organizations organized a campaign before the elections demanding more women in the legislature.
Boye was not only a woman, she was also non-partisan. She remained as Minister of Justice in the new government. The elections gave Wade a large majority – 89 of 120 seats. The representation of women increased, but not to more than 19 per cent. Following the April 2001 legislative elections, Boye was reappointed as Prime Minister on 10 May 2001; she was, however, replaced as Minister of Justice in the government appointed on 12 May.
Atifete Jahjaga: President of Kosovo 2011-present
Atifete Jahjaga – born 20 April 1975 – is a Kosovar politician and the fourth President of Kosovo. She is the first female President of the Republic of Kosovo, the first non-partisan candidate, the first female head of state in the modern Balkans and the youngest to be elected to the office. She served as Deputy Director of the Kosovo Police, holding the rank of Major General and the highest among women in Southeastern Europe.
On 6 April 2011, she was announced as a consensual candidate for president of Kosovo by the Democratic Party of Kosovo, Democratic League of Kosovo and New Kosovo Alliance and supported by the US Ambassador in Kosovo, Christopher Dell. Although she enjoyed a reputation as a police commander, she came out of relative obscurity as a candidate for the high office of the state, with most of the public and political leaders unaware of her political leanings.
In her inaugural address, Jahjaga stated that one of her main goals as President is to secure Kosovo’s membership in the European Union and the United Nations. “The ideal of all Kosovo is membership in the EU and a permanent friendship with the United States. I believe and I am convinced our dreams will come true,” she said in her first speech to the Parliament.
Roza Otunbayeva: President of Kyrgyzstan 2010-2011
Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva – born August 23, 1950 – is a Kyrgyz diplomat and politician who served as the President of Kyrgyzstan from 7 April 2010 until 1 December 2011. She was sworn in on July 3, 2010, after acting as interim leader following the 2010 April revolution which led to the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. She previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as head of the parliamentary caucus for the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan.
On April 7, 2010, Otunbayeva was selected by opposition leaders as head of a Kyrgyz interim government, following widespread rioting in Bishkek and the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Bakiyev fled the Jalal-Abad area as the riots became more violent. Unable to rally support, he signed a resignation as president on April 10, 2010 and left the country for Kazakhstan. Nine days later he went to Minsk, Belarus, where he was given protected-exile status. On April 21 he recanted his resignation and declared that he was still president of Kyrgyzstan. Otunbayeva vowed to bring him to trial.
As interim president, Otunbayeva had four male deputies. Otunbayeva is considered to be unusual as there are few women in politics in Kyrgyzstan. Her first conversation after she came to power was with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Otunbayeva declared that new elections would be called in six months and that she would act as president until then.
In 2010, while congratulating her people with the approach of the month of Ramadan, Otunbayeva stated that the month would bring unity to her country. Otunbayeva stated: “The holy Quran appeals to people living during difficult tests, to general tolerance and forgiveness of the past offences of each other.
“These days, even those who were earlier at enmity must forgive each other in the name of further peaceful coexistence, get rid of all harmful habits and generously respect all people. These holy notions are one of the highest tops of humanistic ideals of Islam.”
Sheikh Hasina: Prime Minister of Bangladesh 1996-2001 and 2009-Present
Sheikh Hasina – born 28 September 1947 – is the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh and has been in office since January 2009. She previously served as Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001, and she has led the Bangladesh Awami League since 1981. She is the eldest of five children of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father and first President of Bangladesh, and widow of the nuclear scientist M. A. Wazed Miah. She is also sometimes referred-to as Sheikh Hasina Wazed, her married name.
Hasina’s political career has spanned more than four decades during which she has been both Prime Minister and opposition leader. As opposition leader, she was the target of an assassination attempt in 2004. In 2007, she was arrested for corruption and charged with murder by the military-backed Caretaker Government during the 2006–2008 Bangladeshi political crisis, when the generals imposed a state of emergency. She returned as Prime Minister after a landslide victory for the Awami League-led Grand Alliance in 2008, when they took two-thirds of the seats in parliament. In January 2014 she became the prime minister for the third time after winning the 2014 parliamentary election, which was boycotted by the main opposition BNP-led alliance. Hasina is considered one of the most powerful women in the world, ranking 47th on Forbes’ list of the 100 most powerful women in the world.
For the better part of the last two decades, Hasina’s chief rival has been BNP leader Khaleda Zia. The two women have alternated as non-interim Prime Ministers since 1991.
Benazir Bhutto: Prime Minister of Pakistan 1988-1990 and 1993-1996
Benazir Bhutto (21 June 1953 – 27 December 2007) was the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan, serving two non-consecutive terms in 1988–90 and then 1993–96. A scion of the politically powerful Bhutto family, she was the eldest daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister himself who founded the centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
In 1982, three years after her father’s assassination, 29-year-old Benazir Bhutto became the chairperson of the PPP, and making her the first woman in Pakistan to head a major political party. In 1988, she became the first woman to be elected as the head of an Islamic state’s government. Noted for her charisma and political astuteness, Bhutto drove initiatives for Pakistan’s economy and national security, and she implemented social-capitalist policies for industrial development and growth. In addition, her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised deregulation of the financial sector, flexible labour markets, the denationalisation of state-owned corporations, and the withdrawal of subsidies to others. Bhutto’s popularity waned amid recession, corruption, and high unemployment which later led to the dismissal of her government by conservative President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
In 1993, Bhutto was elected for a second term after the 1993 parliamentary elections. She survived an attempted coup d’état in 1995, and her hard line against the trade unions and tough rhetorical opposition to her domestic political rivals and to neighbouring India earned her the nickname ‘Iron Lady’. In 1996, charges of corruption levelled against her led to the final dismissal of her government by President Farooq Leghari. Bhutto conceded her defeat in the 1997 Parliamentary elections and went into exile in Dubai in 1999. Nine years later, in 2007, she returned to Pakistan, having reached an understanding with President Pervez Musharraf, who granted her amnesty and withdrew all corruption charges against her. Bhutto was assassinated in a bombing on 27 December 2007, after leaving PPP’s last rally in Rawalpindi, two weeks before the scheduled 2008 general election in which she was the leading candidate. Her party subsequently won the elections on a wave of sympathy generated by her assassination.
Khaleda Zia: Prime Minister of Bangladesh 1991-1996 and 2001-2006
Begum Khaleda Zia – born 15 August 1945 – was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006. When she took office in 1991, she was the first woman in the country’s history and second in the Muslim world (after Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan in 1988–1990) to head a democratic government as prime minister. Khaleda Zia was the First Lady of Bangladesh during the presidency of her husband Ziaur Rahman. She is the chairperson and leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which was founded by Rahman in the late 1970s.
After a military coup in 1982, led by Army Chief General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, Khaleda Zia helped lead the continuing movement for democracy until the fall of military dictator Ershad in 1990. Khaleda became prime minister following the victory of the BNP in the 1991 general election. She also served briefly in the short-lived government in 1996, when other parties had boycotted the first election. In the next round of general elections of 1996, the Awami League came to power. Her party came to power again in 2001. She has been elected to five separate parliamentary constituencies in the general elections of 1991, 1996 and 2001.
In its list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World, Forbes magazine ranked Khaleda Zia at number 14 in 2004, number 29 in 2005, and number 33 in 2006.
Following her government’s term end in 2006, the scheduled January 2007 elections were delayed due to political violence and in-fighting, resulting in a bloodless military takeover of the caretaker government. During its interim rule, it charged Khaleda Zia and her two sons with corruption.
Ameenah Fakim: President of Mauritius 2015–Present
Bibi Ameenah Firdaus Gurib-Fakim – born October 17, 1959 – is a Mauritian Biodiversity Scientist who serves as President of the Republic. As such, she is the Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Republic of Mauritius. In December 2014, she was brought to the public’s attention when she was chosen to be the presidential candidate of the Alliance Lepep. She is the first woman President of the country after Kailash Purryag resigned on 29 May 2015. Both Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth and leader of the Opposition Paul Berenger positively welcomed her nomination, which was unanimously approved in a vote in the National Assembly.
She is also currently the Managing Director of CIDP Research & Innovation where she devotes her time to research the medical and nutritive implications of indigenous plants of Mauritius. Previously, she was a Professor with a personal chair in Organic Chemistry at the University of Mauritius (2001) and where she has served successively as Dean of the Faculty of Science and Pro–Vice Chancellor (2004–2010). She has also worked at the Mauritius Research Council as Manager for Research (1995–1997). She served as the Chairperson the International Council for Scientific Union – Regional Office for Africa (2011–2014).