Written by Syjil Ashraf
Since the moment Islam took root in Mecca, women have been at the forefront of the ummah as leaders socially, economically, militarily, and politically. Contrary to mainstream (Western) media perception, plenty of women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have taken up leadership positions in Muslim-majority countries, and the vast majority of Muslims today live in nations that are either currently, or have previously, elected female leaders.
Here are the eight women who are either currently serving, or have previously served, as head of state of their nation…
8. Atifete Jahjaga (Kosovo)
The fourth and current President of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga became the country’s first female President—and, at age 36, the youngest female head of state to ever be elected—when the Assembly of Kosovo unanimously elected her in 2011. Previously serving as Deputy Director of the Kosovo Police, Jahjaga had worked her way up to the rank of Major General before becoming a politician. Jahjaga hosted an International Women’s Summit in 2012, inviting 200 leaders from all over Europe, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. She has also consistently been invited to and participated in other conferences around the world dedicated to women’s empowerment.
7. Roza Otunbayeva (Kyrgyzstan)
Believe it or not, despite the fact that Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Muslim, Roza Otunbayeva is an atheist. After the 2010 uprising, Otunbayeva served as interim President from April to July of 2010, after which she was sworn in as the third President of the country. She has won many awards from around the world for her leadership and bravery, including the French Légion d’Honneur with the degree of Commander in 2012, as well as an International Women of Courage Award from the United States State Department in 2011. The first Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States and Canada, as well as the first ambassador to the United Kingdom, Otunbayeva also previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as head of the parliamentary caucus for the Social Democratic Party. Prior to that, she came from a more academic background, having graduated from Moscow State University and going on to become head of the Philosophy Department of Kyrgyz State National University for six years.
6. Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesia)
Megawati Sukarnoputri is the daughter of Indonesia’s mononymous first president, Sukarno, as well as the first female president of the country in her own right. Elected Vice President in October 1999, Sukarnoputri became President of the world’s largest Muslim population when President Abdurrahman Wahid was removed from office in July 2001. Criticized for her indecisiveness and inaction regarding policy issues, her slow progression, in terms of reform, led to her being credited with stabilizing democracy as well as relations between the executive, military, and legislative branches of the government.
5. Mama Madior Boye (Senegal)
Serving as Prime Minister of Senegal from March 2001 until November 2002, Mama Madior Boye comes from a family of lawyers. Educated in Senegal and France, most of her government career was served in a judicial capacity. A divorced mother of two children, Boye was known as a strong feminist who often advocated for women’s rights. After serving as Deputy Public Prosecutor, Boye became a judge and then first Vice President of the Regional First Class Court of Dakar and, eventually, Chamber President of the Court of Appeal. Boye was Founder and President of the Association of Senegalese Lawyers from 1975 to 1990, as well as Vice President of the International Federation of Women Lawyers from 1978 to 1998. Prior to her appointment as Prime Minister, she was also elected as the Minister of Justice in 2000. Post politics, Boye was appointed in 2004 as the African Union’s Special Representative for the protection of civilians in armed conflicts.
4. Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh)
Sheikh Hasina is currently serving her third term as Prime Minister of Bangladesh, after being sworn in in January 2009 and 2014. Her first term ran from June 1996 until July 2001, and she has served as leader of the opposition in the intervening years. Hasina is the eldest daughter of the founding father and first President of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In 1981, she was elected President of the Bangladesh Awami League (a political party) while living in India after the 1975 assassination of her parents and three brothers. She survived along with her sister as the pair were in West Germany at the time. Arrested in 2007 on corruption charges, Hasina made a grand comeback in 2008 when she won the election for Prime Minister in a landslide. Hasina has been placed 47th and 59th on Forbes’ list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
3. Khaleda Zia (Bangladesh)
Sheikh Hasina’s biggest rival is yet another Bangladeshi woman and the second woman to become an elected head of state in a Muslim-majority country. Khaleda Zia has been ranked by Forbes among its 100 Most Powerful Women in the World at 14th in 2004, 29th in 2005, and 33rd in 2006. Chairperson and leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Zia served as the First Lady of Bangladesh during the presidency of her husband Ziaur Rahman from 1977 to 1981. Since 1991, she has alternated with Sheikh Hasina as interim Prime Minister. Her first term was from March 1991 to 1996, and her second ran from October 2001 to 2006, with her ten-year tenure making her the longest serving Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Again, like her rival Hasina, Zia has also been brought up on corruption charges, and she has served time for it. Despite this, her government received much praise for its dedication to feeding the poor in a nation where half of the population lives below the poverty line and educating young girls when nearly 70% were illiterate. Economic reforms and encouraged entrepreneurship under Zia led to strong GDP growth, with the industrial sector of the GDP going above 17% by the end of her term.
2. Tansu Çiller (Turkey)
Tansu Çiller joined the True Path Party, or the Doğru Yol Partisi (DYP), in 1990 as an economic adviser to former Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel. Working her way up the party ladder, she eventually became economy minister in 1991, and then leader of the DYP (today the DP, or Democratic Party) and Prime Minister in June 1993, when Demirel took up the post of President. Her party lost the next election cycle, and so she served as Deputy Prime Minister and foreign affairs minister from June 1996 to 1997. Government scandals and mishaps led to her increasing unpopularity, and in 2002 the DYP won less than 10% of the vote and lost all of their representation in Parliament. Çiller resigned from her position as party leader as a result, retiring from active politics. While 35 women’s organizations took her to court due to her lack of principles, she did become a role model as a female politician who neither denied her femininity nor shied away from being masculine when she felt like it.
1. Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan)
In 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the first female head of a Muslim state when she was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. You would think that a Pakistani-American girl such as myself would greatly admire such a woman, but Benazir is complicated. A member of the very politically powerful Bhutto family and daughter of executed former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir became the chairperson of the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which was founded by her father, at the age of 29 (Fun Fact: It’s said that current UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, was introduced to her husband Philip by Benazir while the three were attending Oxford). Although Benazir was a favorite of western leaders and spoke at length about the empowerment of women, she failed to follow through on promises to repeal laws that infringed on the rights of women. She and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari (who later became President, much to the bewilderment of many à la Trump), were brought up on countless corruption charges over the years, eventually resulting in her self-exile in 1998. Nine years later, she returned to Pakistan in order to run in the 2008 elections, and was killed two months after returning, joining a long list of assassinated Bhuttos, including her father and brothers (Another Fun Fact: I was in Pakistan at the time of the assassination, writing about it for the school paper, and subsequently took advantage of the fact for my college essays).
The women on this list aren’t perfect. After all, they are politicians. But the next time you, a buddy, colleague, or Facebook friend that you really should have deleted by now, try to make some comment about how women have no power whatsoever in the Muslim world, I suggest you look back at this list and realize that these eight ladies are just the tip of the iceberg.
Perhaps us Americans can learn a thing or two from the Muslim world about women’s empowerment.