In the last week, there have been two significant news items involving first ladies.
First, The Associated Press (AP) published a story about Peng Liyuan, one of China’s most famous folk singers. She’s a member of China’s People’s Liberation Army and has the rank of major general.
She’s also married to China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, making her China’s first lady if Xi becomes president in 2012, which is likely.
However, for much of this power couple’s relationship, Peng has been the one in the limelight. The AP story explored how the ruling Community Party might react to a first lady who’s so beloved and more famous than her husband. In the Western world where first ladies like Michelle Obama are media darlings, the story made the point that political wives are viewed as suspicious in China. High-ranking officials’ wives are often encouraged to say very little in public, as what they say could jeopardize their husbands’ careers. Political wives, such as current President Hu Jintao’s wife, Liu Yongqing, are rarely seen “except during state visits with the spouses of foreign leaders.”
So far, it looks like Peng’s future will be much like Liu’s. The AP reports that her public appearances have been reduced and references to her marriage to Xi are being deleted from the Internet.
The other first lady story involves Mrs. Obama. Earlier this week, she was in Indonesia with her husband. When she met Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring, they eagerly reached over and shook one another’s hands.
Sembiring, a conservative Muslim, deflected criticism over touching a woman who was not his relative by explaining on his Twitter page, “I tried to prevent [being touched] with my hands but Mrs. Michelle held her hands too far toward me [so] we touched.”
Indonesia has the largest Islamic population in the world. The the vast majority is moderate. Many have criticized Sembiring, stating that he was being hypocritical because he was conveniently excusing his own conduct. However, he would attack the same conduct in others. Sembiring is a controversial figure who has publicly said funding to fight HIV/AIDS is a waste of money.
The first question is, How is a middle-aged man with Twitter and Facebook accounts still so behind the times?
This week, Washington state celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote — 10 years before the United States did with the 19th Amendment in 1920. However, it’s unfortunate that in Asia (and also here in the United States), women are still pushed to the fringes.
Of course, it’s important to be open and accepting of other cultural and religious beliefs, but perhaps not when it infringes on one of our most important beliefs — the belief that women are equal to men.
We encourage everyone to speak out against inequity, in all its forms — but do it respectfully. Though it may be easy to point fingers and condemn another culture because we think we’re more enlightened, it’s important to remember that women were only able to vote in this country since the 20th century — not that long ago. ♦