A wonderfully heartwarming tweet by New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern from back in 2014, when she was a Labour MP, has resurfaced, since she is facing unprecedented popularity after her compassionate response to the mosque massacre in Christchurch, that killed fifty people earlier this year. It said, “Like lots of other people at Wellington airport last night, I got stuck.
Flight was finally canned at 10pm along with any hope of a flight the next day. Everyone waiting at the gate looked pretty gutted, but a few in particular. I was lucky enough to grab a rental car, so I doubled back through the airport to try and find the upset looking group from my flight.
Turns out that one was due at a wedding, the other a 21st, and the third just wanted to see her family. So we devised a road trip together and agreed to meet after a bit of rest. Within a few minutes of leaving the airport I got a text from someone I knew through work in Auckland.
It was his daughter I had just offered a ride to, and he kindly wanted to meet us all in Taupo to drive the last leg. And so here we are, a random collection of people who have had the loveliest reminder that New Zealand is beautifully small.” Imagine any other leader- male or female- so down to earth, warm and friendly. Most female politicians believe that they will be taken seriously only if they acquire the worst traits of men in power; so when Indira Gandhi was described as the “only man in Parliament”, it was perceived as a huge compliment.
As if, the slightest display of feminine gentleness (which is not to imply that men cannot be gentle, but they have to constantly project toughness) would be abhorrent in public life. In India, when so many female leaders are daughters, sisters, wives and daughters of powerful male politicians- nepotism being more rampant in politics than in Bollywood, to far more deleterious effect- they have to act extra aggressively if they have to make a mark for themselves. I
ronically, they also have to dress in feminine outfits to appeal to their constituents. A woman politician in a power suit would, apparently alienate the grassroots public; jeans or shorts would be out of the question.
Interestingly, even Ardern made a populist sartorial choice when she wore a headscarf to meet the Muslim survivors of the Christchurch shootout. It may not have been planned, but that photo of her hugging a Muslim woman went viral and has achieved iconic status.
The picture was projected on the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, and the same image will be painted on a street silo in Melbourne by artist Loretta Lizzio, a structure that stands 75 feet tall and is a landmark on the Brunswick skyline. According to reports, Tamara Veltre, one of the organizers of the crowd-funded mural said the image of Ardern wearing a hijab has “become a beacon of tolerance, love and peace in these divisive times.”
The photo also had trolls running riot, and, after the Sri Lanka terror attacks on churches and hotels, people on social media are wondering if she will appear there dressed in a nun’s habit! Since her response to the Christchurch horror was not belligerent, but empathetic, she has proved that women can be good leaders, even without constant sabre-rattling. The first policy decision she took, was to introduce stronger firearms regulations.
Our politicians could take a lesson or two from her. She has since been named in Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2019; Fortune Magazine has named her the world’s second best leader after Bill and Melinda Gates. There is a buzz about her winning the next Nobel Peace Prize.
Her speech at the Christchurch National Remembrance Service, called not for retribution but for daily acts of kindness from people. It began thus, “In the days that have followed the terrorist attack on the 15th of March, we have often found ourselves without words. What words adequately express the pain and suffering of 50 men, women and children lost, and so many injured? What words capture the anguish of our Muslim community being the target of hatred and violence? What words express the grief of a city that has already known so much pain? I thought there were none.
And then I came here and was met with this simple greeting. Asalamu Aleykum. Peace be upon you. They were simple words, repeated by community leaders who witnessed the loss of their friends and loved ones. Simple words, whispered by the injured from their hospital beds. Simple words, spoken by the bereaved and everyone I met who has been affected by this attack. Asalamu Aleykum. Peace be upon you.”
She called for peace and diversity and went on to say, “Our challenge now is to make the very best of us – a daily reality because we are not immune to the viruses of hate of fear of other – we never have been. But we can be the nation that discovers the cure.”
The 38-year-old leader has always known for her progressive, pacifist and feminist views. She left the Church because, it conflicted with her personal views, like her support for gay rights- she is the first prime minister of New Zealand to march in a gay pride parade. She has a partner, television presenter Clarke Gayford, and had her first child, while in office (only the second female PM to do so after Benazir Bhutto), a daughter she gave a Maori name—Neve Te Aroha.
No sane person in New Zealand judged her or jeered her lifestyle choices. Of course, she has to be strong and decisive as every leader should be, but her stance is tinged with wisdom and benevolence. It is said, a country gets the leaders it deserves. New Zealand is lucky to have Jacinda Ardern. Now take a look around at the men and women who represent us… and weep!
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.