Aung San Suu Kyi and the Mothers of All Movements

Cross-posted at Feministing.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the PM-elect of Burma, was sentenced Tuesday to 18 additional months of house arrest for being secretly visited by an American who swam to her house.

Of the last 20 years, Suu Kyi has been imprisoned for 14. For the first time, other South-East Asian nations have condemned the Burmese government’s sentence, widely seen as a preventative measure against allowing Suu Kyi mobility to participate in the Burmese elections, scheduled for May 2010. In the 1990 multi-party elections, Suu Kyi’s party won 392 out of the Burmese Parliament’s 485 seats and was denied power. Suu Kyi, the Prime Minister-Elect of Burma and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is the daughter of General Aung San, the “father” of Myanmar. She has been offered freedom if she leaves her country, but refuses under fear of being denied re-entry, remaining under house arrest even while the father of her children died of prostate cancer in Britain. She is widely referred to as “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” as “Daw” roughly means “aunt.”

Women are frequently rallying points for political movements, and even more frequently referred to as relatives, “Mothers” or “Daughters” of political activism. The familial rhetoric serves not only to endear these leaders to their followers, but also to uniquely characterize each movement as friendly and nurturing in media coverage to the international community.

In political messager George Lakoff’s book “Moral Politics,” he discusses the heteronormative American ideal of a strict father and nurturant mother figure (which also maps straight onto John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin). Well, the idolization of nurturant mother figures is reflected in the women leading political movements worldwide.

The leader of the Uighur protests in the Xinjiang region of China is an elderly woman named Rebiya Kadeer, described as a “paradigm of non-violence” by the Dalai Lama and a murderer by the Chinese government. Kadeer’s “mother credentials” were established when she created the “1,000 Families Mothers Project” to encourage small mother-owned businesses to flourish in Xinjiang. Then, her children were imprisoned by the Chinese government.

Benazir Bhutto, the first woman PM in an Islamic country, was killed in Pakistan in 2007. Like Suu Kyi, Bhutto inherited a political legacy from her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was assassinated in 1979. Upon her death, she was awarded the “Best Mother Award” by the World Population Federation, and much of the dialogue surrounding her focused on her relationship with her son and her intent for him to take over. Her assassination put a face on the struggle for democratic civilian rule in Pakistan, and gave the movement a digestible political narrative. Accused of corruption and thrown out of the government several times, Bhutto was far from Kadeer’s “paradigm of non-violence,” and might have sold state secrets to North Korea for nuclear technology, but her posthumous idolization highlights her motherhood.

Similarly, Neda put a face of innocence to the post-election protests in Iran, characterized as a peaceful daughter oppressed by a militant government. Indira Ghandi was Mother India. Corazon Aquino was the “Mother of Democracy.

But unlike the dialogue surrounding “Founding Fathers,” the concept of motherhood, and its association with nurturance, are mutually exclusive with militancy. Cognitively, when people see a leader described as caring or nurturant, using familial words, first impressions stick. Neurons fire in our brains associating a leader with family, and violence that results because of the movement is less likely to tarnish that leader’s reputation, because it would require us to unlearn our mental association of that woman as a mother. When messaging highlights an individual’s nurturant values, such as family, personal loss, the end result is an image of peace.

The empowering lesson here is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Bhutto, Kadeer, Neda, Aquino, and Ghandi inspired massive political movements. When women are rallying points for activism and characterized in a familial way, it can be a boon to their political movement to attain the legitimacy that comes with a peaceful reputation. Amid the widely held belief that the distraction of motherhood and family weakens women professionals and leaders, this messaging can be a politically helpful trend for women leaders confronting tools of oppression. If imprisoned, the negative light is cast on these womens’ governments for imprisoning an instrument of peace.

But motherhood is not a professional or political qualification, nor does it reflect on the soundness of ideas. This political messaging helped Burmese, Indian, Pakistani, Uighur, Iranian, and Phillipine movements. Yet it differs significantly from the treatment of men who are leaders of insurgencies or political movements, frequently characterized as militants.

Is the net result for women good or bad?

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