Before Sanna Marin came Benazir Bhutto


Pakistanis elected 35-year-old Benazir Bhutto (right) as their prime minister more than 30 years before 34-year-old Sanna Marin’s ascent to power in Finland PHOTO/Reuters

Is having a female leader definitive proof that a country has reached gender equality?

On December 10, Finland’s left-wing Social Democrats, who lead a five-party coalition government, picked 34-year-old Minister of Transport and Communications Sanna Marin as the country’s new prime minister. 

The decision made the relatively unknown politician an international celebrity overnight – after all it is not every day that a woman as young as Marin gets the chance to lead a country. Countless articles and news reports published and broadcast across the world celebrated her sudden rise to power as a “feminist victory” and praised Finland for its “progressiveness”.

Marin’s premiership has clearly been perceived by many in Finland and beyond as a manifestation of Nordic gender equality. But is Finland really that unique for having a young, female leader? And more importantly, is having a woman leader definitive proof that a country reached gender equality? 

According to this measure, Pakistan, a country often branded “deeply conservative” and “patriarchal” and even considered one of the most dangerous in the world for women, for example, was seemingly as progressive as Finland over 30 years ago when Pakistanis elected a 35-year-old woman, Benazir Bhutto, as their prime minister.

Back then, Bhutto was not only the youngest prime minister in the world but also the first Muslim woman to hold a country’s highest office. In contrast, Finland got its first and only female president a decade later in 2000 and the first female prime minister in 2003.

And Pakistan was not the only “conservative”, predominantly Muslim nation to beat “progressive” Finland to electing a female head of state. Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister of Bangladesh in 1991 and Tansu Ciller was elected Turkey’s prime minister in 1993.

Other nations that are part of the global south, and that are similarly perceived in the West as “dangerous” or “hostile” to women, had female leaders even earlier. Sri Lanka’s first female Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected to office in 1960, while Indira Gandhi became India’s prime minister in 1966.

Unlike Marin, whose ascent to power was widely seen as a consequence of her country’s feminist values, Bhutto’s tenure was seen as an anomaly. 

As the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bhutto hailed from a political dynasty and was groomed from an early age for a career in politics. Her family’s wealth and status allowed her to study at Harvard and Oxford.

After her father was hanged by military dictator Zia ul-Haq in 1979, she started to lead the struggle for the reinstatement of democracy in the country. But if not for her political family, elite status and the feudal nature of the Pakistani society, she may never have made it as far.

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