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Female Heads of State in Asia

Modern Women Presidents and Prime Ministers

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The women on this list have attained high political power in their countries, all across Asia, beginning with Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, who became Prime Minister for the first time in 1960.

Today, a dozen women have headed governments in modern Asia, including several who have governed predominantly Muslim nations. They are listed here in order of the starting date of their first term in office.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka

Sirimavo Bandaranayaka of Sri Lanka was the first modern female head of state.
via Wikipedia

Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka (1916-2000) was the first woman to become head of government in a modern state. She was the widow of Ceylon's former prime minister, Solomon Bandaranaike, who was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959. Mrs. Bandarnaike served three terms as prime minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka over a span of four decades: 1960-65, 1970-77, and 1994-2000.

As with many of Asia's political dynasties, the Bandaranaike family tradition of leadership continued into the next generation. Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, listed below, is the eldest daughter of Sirimavo and Solomon Bandaranaike.

Indira Gandhi, India

Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, during the 1970s.
Central Press / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) was the third prime minister and first woman leader of India. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country's first prime minister; like many of her fellow female political leaders, she continued the family tradition of leadership.

Mrs. Gandhi served as Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. She was 67 years old when she was killed by her own bodyguards.

Read a full biography of Indira Gandhi here.

Golda Meir, Israel

Golda Meir, Israeli Prime Minister, in 1977.
David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images

Ukrainian-born Golda Meir (1898-1978) grew up in the United States, living in New York City and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before emigrating to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine and joining a kibbutz in 1921. She became Israel's fourth prime minister in 1969, serving until the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War in 1974.

Golda Meir was known as the "Iron Lady" of Israeli politics, and was the first female politician to reach the highest office without following a father or husband in the post. She was injured when a mentally unstable man threw a grenade into the Knesset (parliament) chambers in 1959, and survived lymphoma as well.

As Prime Minister, Golda Meir ordered the Mossad to hunt down and kill members of the Black September movement who murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.

Corazon Aquino, the Philippines

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The first female president in Asia was "ordinary housewife" Corazon Aquino of the Philippines (1933-2009), who was the widow of assassinated senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr.

Aquino came to prominence as the leader of "People Power Revolution" that forced dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power in 1985. Marcos likely had ordered the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.

Corazon Aquino served as the eleventh president of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992. Her son, Benigno "Noy-noy" Aquino III, would also serve as the fifteenth president.

Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan

Bhutto was in Pakistan campaigning for a third non-consecutive term as Prime Minister.
John Moore / Getty Images

Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) of Pakistan was a member of another powerful political dynasty; her father served as both president and prime minister of that country before his 1979 execution by the regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. After years as a political prisoner of Zia's government, Benazir Bhutto would go on to become the first female leader of a Muslim nation in 1988.

She served two terms as prime minister of Pakistan, from 1988 to 1990, and from 1993 to 1996. Benazir Bhutto was campaigning for a third term in 2007 when she was assassinated.

Read a full biography of Benazir Bhutto here.

Chandrika Kumaranatunga, Sri Lanka

U.S. State Department via Wikipedia

As the daughter of two former prime ministers, including Sirimavo Bandaranaike (listed above), Sri Lankan Chandrika Kumaranatunga (1945-present) was steeped in politics from an early age. Chandrika was just fourteen when her father was assassinated; her mother then stepped into party leadership, becoming the world's first female prime minister.

In 1988, a Marxist assassinated Chandrika Kumaranatunga's husband Vijaya, a popular film actor and politician. The widowed Chandrika left Sri Lanka for some time, working for the United Nations in the UK, but returned in 1991. She served as President of Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2005, and proved instrumental in ending the long-running Sri Lankan Civil War between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils.

Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh

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As with many of the other leaders on this list, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh (1947-present) is the daughter of a former national leader. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the first president of Bangladesh, which broke away from Pakistan in 1971.

Sheikh Hasina has served two terms as Prime Minister, from 1996 to 2001, and from 2009 to the present. Much like Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina was charged with crimes including corruption and murder, but managed to regain her political stature and reputation.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Philippines

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Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (1947-present) served as the fourteenth president of the Philippines between 2001 and 2010. She is the daughter of ninth president Diosdado Macapagal, who was in office from 1961 to 1965.

Arroyo served as vice president under President Joseph Estrada, who was forced to resign in 2001 for corruption. She became president, running as an opposition candidate against Estrada. After serving as president for ten years, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won a seat in the House of Representatives. However, she was accused of electoral fraud and jailed in 2011. As of this writing, she is in both prison and the House of Representatives, where she represents the 2nd District of Pampanga.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia

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Megawati Sukarnoputri (1947-present), is the eldest daughter of Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia. Megawati served as president of the archipelago from 2001 to 2004; she has run against Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono twice since then, but has lost both times.

Pratibha Patil, India

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After a long career in law and politics, Indian National Congress member Pratibha Patil was sworn into office for a five-year term as the president of India in 2007. Patil has long been an ally of the powerful Nehru/Gandhi dynasty (see Indira Gandhi, above), but is not herself descended from political parents.

Pratibha Patil is the first woman to serve as president of India. The BBC called her election "a landmark for women in a country where millions routinely face violence, discrimation and poverty."

Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan

US State Dept. via Wikipedia

Roza Otunbayeva (1950-present) served as the president of Kyrgyzstan in the wake of the 2010 protests that overthrew Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Otunbayeva took office as the interim president. Bakiyev himself had taken power after Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution of 2005, which overthrew dictator Askar Akayev.

Roza Otunbayeva held office from April 2010 to December 2011. A 2010 referendum changed the country from a presidential republic to a parliamentary republic at the end of her interim term in 2011.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand

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Yingluck Shinawatra (1967-present) is the first female prime minister of Thailand. Her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, also served as prime minister until he was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

Formally, Yingluck rules in the name of the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Observers suspect that she actually represents her ousted brother's interests, however.

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