Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Iron Ladies

Hmmmm, how about a female prime minister in Canada (actually, we did have one, briefly...very briefly) or a female president of the United States (the right wingers would rather poke their eyes out with a rusty fork). For a lesson in female politicians, let's take a look at a couple of countries known for their egalitarian, democratic, female-friendly societies (snark!)

The newest president of Liberia (not exactly a hotbed of gender equality), with 60% of the votes, is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Many Africans refer to Johnson-Sirleaf as the Iron Lady, and with good cause. This Harvard-educated former Liberian Minister of Finance has had an "interesting" life. Just prior to the 1985 elections, she gave a speech highly critical of Samuel Doe, the military ruler of the day (you just know she was going to pay for that!). For that transgression, she was sentenced to 10 years detention. After serving a short period of detention, she managed to flee the country and stayed in exile for 12 years. During her exile, she managed to keep herself busy doing various McJobs such as senior loan officer of the World Bank, director of United Nations Development Programme, and vice-president of Citibank (African operations).

Her opponent in the election was George Weah, a popular soccer star. (Weah couldn't even conceive of the idea that he could be beaten by a woman. In his arrogance, he sent out his minions to do the hand-shaking and deal-making while Johnson-Sirleaf actually went door-to-door herself). But many Liberians feared Weah had links to rebel groups that helped plunge Liberia into a bloody seven year civil war that has crippled the economy and wreaked havoc on the country's infrastructure . And then Weah made a campaign mistake, a serious mistake. Weah decided to campaign on the slogan "educated people failed", blaming all the country's woes on the educated class of Liberian society. With this attitude he offended a large section of the voters - the women. (rule number one - don't piss off half the population!). In a country with 80% poverty and 60% illiteracy, the poor still see education as the means of bettering ones life. Telling people that getting an education was a waste of time and energy didn't go over well with large segments of society, especially the women. The mothers and market women of Liberia toil for long, hard hours, doing everything in their power to provide the financial means to educate their children. They may (or may not) accept that they cannot change their own lives, but by God, they will do whatever it takes to make their childrens' lives better. To be told by Weah that it is all for nothing pissed them off! And they let their anger be known. On election night, Weah never knew what hit him.

In the meantime, Johnson-Sirleaf ran a clean campaign emphasizing the economy and the need to repair and replace the infrastructure so heavily damaged during the war.
Many Liberian newspapers backed Johnson-Sirleaf's campaign, calling her plans for Liberia's future "clear, comprehensive and practical"

As a side note, when it was clear that Weah had lost the election, the soccer star lost his composure. He claimed election fraud, ballot-stuffing, etc. and refused to acknowledge Johnson-Sirleaf as the new president. The sour grapes routine didn't work - Johnson-Sirleaf has now been officially declared the winner.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Michelle Bachelet appears poised to become the next president of Chile when the Chileans go to the polls on December 11. Bachelet,a surgeon specializing in pediatrics, has had a long, tough road to travel. Under the Pinochet government Bachelet, along with her mother and father, were imprisoned and tortured. Bachelet's father didn't survive. Like Liberia's Johnson-Sirleaf, Bachelet was forced to flee her country for a number of years and like Johnson-Sirleaf, Bachelet comes with an armload of qualifications - surgeon, a Masters in military science from the Chilean Army's War Academy, Minister of Health, Minister of Defense.

Bachelet's strong presidential campaign is a bit of a surprise in a country that is known for being ultra-conservative, highly patriarchal, and strongly Roman Catholic. (in fact, Chile has only legalized divorce in the last year.) Against this background, we have Bachelet,a divorced mother of three (two of whom were born out of wedlock due to the illegality of divorce at that time) and a self-proclaimed agnostic. Can you imagine her trying to run for city council in the US? She wouldn't be allowed to make it past the front door! When asked her opinion about the equality of the sexes, she responded (with a mischievious grin on her face) "I think men are just as good as women" (gotta love her!).

In a recent poll, voters said that of all the candidates, Bachelet seemed the most honest, most sincere, and the most "level-headed". (Imagine polling in North America on the "level-headedness" of candidates! I love it)

So, tell me something. How is it that these women, in such female oppressive societies, have managed to do something (achieve the highest political office in their respective countries) and we, in a supposed egalitarian North American society, still tend to view female political leaders as surprising as Ed, the talking horse? Why is it that these female-unfriendly societies are capable of either ignoring or accepting the unconventional personal lives of Bachelet and Johnson-Sirleaf, and we drag our public members through the mud for the slightest infringement of somebody's "family values"? As much as we may like to sit back and point fingers at what we claim are intolerant societies, it's difficult to believe that we here in North America are any more tolerant than them.

Oh, and by the way, go back about the business of Bachelet and her mother being imprisoned and tortured. Now, try and tell me that women are too weak for combat!


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