Hillary Clinton landed in South Asia on May 6 with some suggestions.
She wants the government and opposition in Bangladesh to sort out their differences, and quickly, and end a recent period of political violence. And she’d like the government to leave her friend Muhammed Yunus, the microfinance pioneer, alone to do his job.
She wants Pakistan to crack down in Islamist militants, including Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri, whom, she said, the U.S. believes lives in Pakistan, and to arrest Hafez al-Said, mastermind of the Mumbai attacks.
Oh, and India. India needs to stop buying oil from Iran (of which it is the second-largest consumer), open up its retail sector to foreign investors such as Wal-Mart, and do more to stop sex-trafficking.
Ms. Clinton is widely liked in the region, but all these suggestions – which seemed to strike some as more like instructions, or, say, orders – add up. In the political blogging communities of all three countries, which are fearsomely attuned to anything that challenges national sovereignty, Ms. Clinton has been accused of over-stepping, indeed, of scolding.
She’s been characterized as “Hillary Aunty” – a mocking reference to the ladies of a certain age that populate every South Asian neighbourhood, airing unsolicited opinions on other people’s affairs.
It’s a snarky, sexist description.
Yet the coverage of Ms Clinton is accompanied by photos of the parade of leaders she has met, and these tell another story.
There’s Ms. Clinton with India’s most powerful politician, Indian National Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, and in Calcutta with the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. There she is with Bangaldeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and with the leader of the opposition, Begum Khaleda Zia.
Ms. Clinton signed an agreement with the Bangladeshi foreign minister, Dipu Moni, and she did a massively-viewed “town hall” meeting with young people in Calcutta that was hosted by the country’s most prominent media figure, Barkha Dutt. Her comments on Pakistan were rebutted by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
One could describe any one of these women as an Aunty (except perhaps the young and glamorous Ms. Khar.)
It is one of the great ironies of South Asia – that in the same countries that score most poorly on every index of gender equality, riddled with problems from sex-selective abortion to dowry to forced marriage, much of the political power is held by women.
Ms Clinton’s visit has been a pointed reminder: around here, the Aunties are in charge.
This weekend in the west sees Mother's Day, a 'hallmark' day for selling millions of cards, even more millions of flowers and millions of meals in restaurants, so that mothers will not have to cook, at least for one day.
Passing by the tokenism of the celebration, one is prompted to reflect on one's own mother, on the mother of one's children, and on motherhood generally in an extremely fluid context with which most men simply cannot keep pace.
Rebecca Anna Jane would be 101, if she were still alive for Mother's Day, 2012. A "Florence Nightingale" nurse especially of the terminally ill, an instructor of RNA's at their inception into the community college system, Rebecca (known as Betty to her friends and as 'Your Mother' to her spouse) was every bit the "aunty" of the domain, much in the tradition of the countries above. Uninhibited about interfering in the affairs of grown children and grandchildren, she strode her kitchen, her garden, her wards and her sewing and needlepoint theatres as both unchallenged and unchallengable. While Hillary dons the mantle of "aunty" among political cultures where women reign, Rebecca challenged the status quo by her rebellious differences from neighbourhood women, all of whom quietly acquiesced to their husbands.
A trained soprano, her speaking voice required no electronic amplification, bouncing off walls on all floors in the house and hospital, unless sleeping patients required a hoarse whisper. Clarity, and her rejection of anything smacking of ambiguity defined not only her voice but also her positions:
- on individuals (both positive and intensely negative),
- on homosexuality (unalterably opposed),
- on women clergy (also vehemently opposed),
- on women heroines (Charlotte Whitten, Mayor of Ottawa, famous for the line, "In order to be considered equal to men, women have to be twice as good; fortunately, men did not make that difficult!")
- on incompetent teachers (sought their removal and chastised their hiring agents),
- on hockey for young boys (way too expensive),
- on aspirations to the NHL (they are all drunks),
- on mixed marriages (protestant and Roman Catholic) (they can't work)
- on parties and alcohol (neither were acceptable, the latter never found in the cupboard)
- on men (none of them are any good, including both the one I married and the one to whom I gave birth)
- on cigarette smoking (if God had not wanted us to smoke, he would not have created tobacco)
- on cleanliness (next to godliness and imposed at an Operating Room standard)
- on discipline (spare the rod and spoil the child)
- on the Bible (read it every day)
- on death of patients (I'm glad they are not suffering any longer)
- on sisters-in-law (one wouldn't have a roof except for the other)
- on making her own clothes (they bought their suit for $300 at The Room, I made mine for $10)
Industrious and ambitious perhaps to a fault, a cook of both nourishing and over-sized meals, a friendly hostess, and a secret benefactor for her students without adequate winter clothing, Rebecca made everything personal, literally everything, and met and conversed with people from around the world in cities across North America, many of whom actually continued the conversation in her home, at her dining room table, just as her mother had taken in the hungry during the Depression of 1929.