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Rejected, Unseen Or Beloved: The Varied Roles of Asia's First Ladies

Peng Liyuan and her husband Chinese President Xi Jinping, with French President Francois Hollande
Peng Liyuan and her husband Chinese President Xi Jinping, with French President Francois Hollande
Sophie Mühlmann

SINGAPORE — Jashodaben Modi arrives at the police station sitting on the luggage rack of her brother's motor bike. A simple woman, she wears a white cotton sari with an orange top underneath, wire frame glasses, and her grey hair in a braid. She wants to lodge a complaint with the police of the Mehsana District in the Indian state of Gujarat. The complaint is about her bodyguards, four heavily built men who follow her in an air-conditioned limousine as she makes her way around by bus or motor bike taxi.

What's more, the guards expect to be treated like guests. Jashodaben is expected to cook for them and make their beds. She says she's afraid for her life, which is not unreasonable since Indira Gandhi was murdered by one of her bodyguards.

Jashodaben Modi is not just anybody: She is India's First Lady, even though very few Indians know of her existence. Her husband, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, prefers not to talk about his wife. She doesn't fit into his fastidiously crafted image of ascetic Hindu who lives only for his work.

And so the inconspicuous 62-year-old former teacher has been living with her older brother Ashok instead of with her husband for over four decades. It was only when she went to the police with cautious questions about what privileges she had as wife of the prime minister that she came in for wider notice.

That Prime Minister Modi was married came to public attention when he handed in the papers for his candidacy. Civil status: married. Wife's name: Jashodaben. Residence: no information.

It was an embarrassing revelation in that the Hindu nationalist had always boasted about being unattached, saying with outspread arms and moist lips during the campaign, "I enjoy being alone," and "I have no family ties. So who would benefit if I were corrupt?"

Certainly not Jashodaben. And in chauvinistic India, the story of Modi's spurned wife didn't damage his reputation. He was elected prime minister in a blaze of glory. The fallout for his wife? She has to wait on her bodyguards and meanwhile fears for her life.

In the parting of her hair, Jashodaben wears the Sindoor, the traditional Hindu symbol of cinnabar red powder that designates a married woman. Only widows wash the Sindoor away.

In the late 1960s, Jashodaben's parents arranged the marriage to Modi for their teenage daughter. It didn't work and was never consummated. Three years after they were married, as she shyly confided to a journalist, her husband told her she would be better off living her own life. Since then, she has lived like many Asian women, pressed into a role she didn't want, in the shadow of her flamboyant husband. She is an unloved woman.

But Papa Xi loves his wife

While there is no room for love in Indian politics, other top Asian politicians have recognized that a little romance goes over well. A president in love gets brownie points and makes him seem more approachable.

That's a message China's president understands. Xi Jinping openly adores his wife, the glamorous singer Peng Liyuan. She is elegant and beautiful, and had long been a star in the People's Republic by the time her husband stepped into the public eye. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin fell for her charms. At the last Asia summit in Melbourne, he risked bilateral discord when he covered Peng's delicate shoulders with a shawl.

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Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan — Photo: APEC2013

In China the First Lady is not a subject to keep quiet about. On the contrary, she's the jewel that makes the president sparkle in her company. The difference between the two Asian superpowers could not, in this regard, be more evident.

"Mama Peng loves Papa Xi" is a banal pop song accompanied by an amateur expand=1] video clip that has become a huge hit in China. In the clip, Xi is shown as a grinning comic book figure wearing a power overcoat standing next to his chic wife, also portrayed as a comic book figure with her shiny hair piled high on her head. Along with a simple text and a few kitschy photographs, highlights of the video include floating pink hearts and a choir of happy children.

The video made by four young musicians from Henan Province got 22 million clicks in its first week alone. "Their love is like a legend," the songwriter texted. "A country with love is the most powerful." A president in love and his glitzy wife make the Chinese proud.

After decades of inconspicuous presidential wives in Beijing, women who never appeared in public, Xi proudly shows off his wife, and sometimes the pair even wear coordinated outfits. It is of course possible that this public affection is for image reasons only, because Peng is considered a secret weapon to charm the West and she makes the slightly wooden technocrat Xi seem more human. But even if it's only for show, the couple-in-love thing works.

A Filipino Cinderella story

Imelda Marcos, widow of the former Philippines dictator, was never close to the people. On the contrary, she once said, "I must be beautiful so that poor Filipinos have a star to look out at from their slums."

But Imelda Marcos also based her status on love. The "iron butterfly" had long crafted her image of an enchanting Cinderella, the poor little girl from the provinces, the "Rose of Tacloban" who became the most powerful woman in the country. She's an Asian Evita, right down to the musical (the 2010 album Here Lies Love that was produced as a rock musical in 2013 tells her story). However camp, it's a story many Filipinos believe even today.

[rebelmouse-image 27088390 alt="""" original_size="750x491" expand=1]

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1982 — Photo: Reagan Presidential Library

Imelda, who has been widowed for many years and has become lushly voluminous over time, is certainly no longer a butterfly. In an interview last year, she related how she met Ferdinand Marcos, how they fell in love and married all within 11 days. "After 20 minutes, he said to me, "You know what, Miss Romuáldez? With your permission, I'm going to marry you. Marry you right now!""

Imelda then went on to recount how the dictator captured her heart. Even as a young boy, he told her, he'd imagined the future love of his life to be like her. "It's not love at first sight," Ferdinand supposedly whispered in the gorgeous young woman's ear. "I've always loved you!"

The former beauty queen acquired a dubious reputation because of her excesses. Nevertheless, she was the idol of the masses when her husband was still in power. Filipinos loved her flashy glamour and many are still proud of the extravagant former First Lady.

Love in Afghanistan

The looks of the First Lady in Afghanistan, a country 5,600 kilometers northwest of the Philippines, are not important. But even here — where the Taliban forbid women from participating in life outside the home, refused to let girls go to school and even hacked the hands off women caught wearing red fingernail polish — love has moved into the presidential palace along with new First Lady Rula Ghani.

When new Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani addressed his wife Rula in his inaugural speech, his voice broke with emotion. He thanked his "life partner and beloved wife" for her support. And he said that "Bibi Gul" (her Afghan name) would have political influence. That was a first in the Hindu Kush. Wearing no makeup, her hair covered, eyes shielded by sunglasses, Rula Ghani sat there among all those men and nodded affectionately at her husband.

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Rula Ghani — Photo: USAID Afghanistan

In the 10 years he was in office, former President Hamid Karzai hid his wife Zinat behind high walls. She virtually never appeared in public and gave up her career as a medical doctor for her husband.

But Karzai's successor is moving very quickly in the other direction. Rula Ghani, an American Christian of Lebanese heritage, already has her own office in the palace and works actively with refugees. She is also working on the role of women in the country. Her husband has supported her in active public life, doing the opposite of what Nahendra Modi did in India.

Through their cultures and traditions, Asia's First Ladies are more limited than their Western counterparts. A Hillary Clinton is hardly imaginable here. Asian wives are not outspoken, and very few would steal the show from their husbands, even assuming they could. But when they have more room to maneuver, some of the women could change things quite a bit.

The women at the side of Asia's powerful men are — as such women are all over the world — models for the women in their country. In a region of the world where the female population has been marginalized for a particularly long time, progressive First Ladies can inspire many women. And some of them know how to make the best of their roles.

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When Racism Poisons Italy's Culinary Scene

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Mareme Cisse in the kitchen of Ginger People&Food

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TURIN — Guess who's not coming to dinner. It seems like a scene from the American Deep South during the decades of segregation. But this happened in Italy, in this summer of 2023.

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