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Hillary Clinton takes charge, 'Aunty' style, in South Asia

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee greet each other before a meeting in Kolkata, India, Monday, May 7, 2012.

Bikas Das/AP/Bikas Das/AP

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.

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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.

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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.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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