Have you ever wondered why women in power can be so formidably impressive? Regardless of the correctness of their policies, they often display a steely determination, a cold, calculating, even ruthless belief in themselves. Faced with incredible odds they can be almost frighteningly courageous. On such occasions, men might waiver or reconsider, but not a woman.
Let me start with the example I know best. In 1986, when she was returning to Pakistan after years in exile, Benazir Bhutto knew it had to be with a bang. More importantly, she accepted that the impact had to be felt in the Punjab and not just her home state of Sindh. So, she chose to arrive in Lahore.
Sitting in first class, as the plane flew through the clouds, Benazir found her mind racing ahead to the reception awaiting her. It would be her moment of truth. In a mere matter of hours, she would either have a political career or it would be over before it had taken off.
The plane landed in a seemingly deserted airport. Benazir anxiously looked out but couldn’t see the crowd of supporters she was hoping for. Silence and emptiness seemed to have shrouded the place. Was this the response she had evoked? Was this the end, rather than the beginning?
At the bottom of the stairs were a few senior officials of her People’s Party. But that was it. No one else was present. The airport was empty. Her heart sank.
“Assalam Alaikum Bibi,” her party’s Punjab province president greeted her. He was smiling. So were the others. Their cheerfulness confused Benazir until they spoke.
There were lakhs of people waiting to welcome her but the authorities had not allowed them into the airport. They had sealed its precincts. Yet, just beyond half of Lahore had turned up. Her return home was a triumph. She had defeated General Zia’s efforts even though he was at the height of his power.
I witnessed the second example on television in 1980. Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister of Britain. She was new and the Iron Lady image had not yet been born. At the time she was under pressure to reverse her economic policies. With inflation soaring above ten percent and unemployment touching 3 million, even the pips had started to squeak.
It happened at her party conference in Brighton. Shortly after starting her speech, shouts demanding a U-turn interrupted her. Although such protests were not unusual, at the Tory Party conference they were a sign her own party was against her.
But did Mrs. Thatcher attempt to compromise? Or appease? Not for a second. As the shouting reached a crescendo, she interrupted her delivery, turned to face the protestors and delivered the most famous put down in 20th century political history : “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Today this act defines Mrs. Thatcher. It symbolises her determination, her defiance, and her disregard of the odds.
The third example is one we’ve foolishly forgotten. It’s from the 70s when Janata was in power and Indira Gandhi isolated, unpopular and under pressure. A gruesome attack on Dalits in Belchi had horrified public opinion. With the country’s ruling politicians too preoccupied with themselves to care, Indira Gandhi sensed her opportunity. She flew to Patna, motored into the country side and then, because the monsoons had made the roads impassable, reached Belchi on elephant back. It was late at night and she shone a torch on her face so the villagers could recognise her.
The next morning, a stark black and white picture of Indira Gandhi entering Belchi, alone but undaunted, frail but fearless, her strong profile silhouetted against the black night, was on all the front pages. It signaled her return to politics. It also proved something more important. There was no one in Indian politics who could compete with her.
These are three women who had the courage to take their fate in their hands. They made their own luck and determined their future. Yet the gamble each took could have easily gone wrong. If it had, two would have ended up mere footnotes in history whilst Indira Gandhi would never have overcome the shame of the emergency.
The trick, I’m sure, is to know which opportunity to grab. The successful never get it wrong. The rest pick the wrong one and rarely get it right. But do women in power have a better strike rate than anyone else?