Muslim countries which had female leaders before the US

29th Mar 2018

Nadine Osman

As the world celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, the number of countries with female heads of state or government continues to grow. But the list is still relatively short with only 16 of the world’s leaders being women.

Just 79 nations have had a female head of government or state but one notable absentee from that group is the United States which has failed to elect a female president. 

According to the latest report by Inter-Parliamentary Union and United Nations Women, the US has sunk from 52nd in the world for women’s representation to 104th. In the past year alone, the US has dropped nine places – from 95th to 104th (out of 190 countries). 

In fact, They include Bangladesh (2), Indonesia, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, Northern Cyprus, Pakistan, Senegal (2) and Turkey.

The first female leader of a Muslim majority country was Benazir Bhutto who served as Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996 during a tumultuous life that ended with her assassination. The daughter of Pakistan People’s Party founder and Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto took over as chair of the party in 1982. Six years later at age 35, she became one of the youngest heads of state in the world when she was elected PM.

In 1993, South Asia welcomed its second Muslim female leader. Khaleda Zia premiered Bangladesh until 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006. Zia was the First Lady of Bangladesh during the presidency of her husband Ziaur Rahman. She is the chairperson and leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which was founded by Rahman in the late 1970s. When Zia took office in 1991, she was the first woman in the country’s history and second in a Muslim majority country, which is currently being led by another woman Sheikh Hasina since 2009.

Hasina is one of the most powerful women in the world, ranking 30th on Forbes’ list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2017. Hasina is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an International network of current and former women presidents and PMs.

Bangladesh, which has the eighth-largest population in the world (156.2 million), has had the longest stretches with female leaders in the past 50 years. Hasina and Zia have collectively ruled over Bangladesh for 24 years and counting.

Away from Asia Tansu Çiller was elected PM of Turkey in 1993 (until 1996). Born in Istanbul in 1946, Çiller graduated from the School of Economics at Robert College in Turkey and received her PhD from the University of Connecticut. Four Muslim countries have been or are currently led by women who are dynasties. Çiller, however, became the first Muslim woman to win her position as PM entirely on her own.

Megawati Sukarnoputri became the fourth female to lead a Muslim-majority nation when she was elected president of Indonesia from 2001 to 2004; she is currently the leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

Atifete Jahjaga was the third President of Kosovo (2011 to 2016). She was not only the first female president in the Western Balkans but the first non-partisan candidate and at 36 one of the youngest female heads of state. She served as Deputy Director of the Kosovo Police, holding the rank of Major General, the most senior among women officers in South-eastern Europe.

Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva served as interim President of Kyrgyzstan from 2010 until 2011. She was sworn in on July 3, 2010, after acting as interim leader following the April revolution which led to the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. She previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as head of the parliamentary caucus for the Social Democratic Party.

Two Muslim majority African countries have also been led by women. Aminata Touré served as the PM of Senegal from September 2013 until July 2014. She actually was the country’s second female PM after Mame Madior Boye who held office from 2001 to 2002. Neighbouring Mali elected their first female PM Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé 2011 to 2012.

Turkish Cypriot Sibel Siber served as interim PM of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus between June 13,  2013, following the fall of the government of İrsen Küçük in a vote of no confidence in 2013. She was the first woman to occupy this post. As of November 2015, Siber was the Speaker of Parliament, the Assembly of the Republic of Northern Cyprus. She was the second woman to occupy this post, after Fatma Ekenoğlu.


Notable mentions


Dr Massoumeh Ebtekar served as Iran’s first female Vice President and Head of the Department of Environment from 1997 to 2005. During her tenure, she drove awareness and practical impacts through influential legislation and regulation. Domestically, the economic and industrial sectors in Iran improved environmental compliance; natural protected areas grew from 4.5% to 7.5% of the country’s area; and environmental NGOs grew from 20 to more than 650.


Mauritius (Dr Ameenah Gurib) and Singapore (Halimah Yacob) are the only non-Muslim majority nations with Muslim women as head of states, albeit in ceremonial presidential roles.




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