DHAKA, Bangladesh — The two most powerful opposition political figures in this male-dominated society are referred to simply as "the ladies."
The women, Sheik Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia, control the two most popular political alliances, and each claims to be the odds-on favorite to become president if the current leader, President Hussain Mohammad Ershad, steps down.
Both women inherited their mantles. Sheik Hasina's father, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the first president of independent Bangladesh, was killed, along with his wife and other children, in a military coup in 1975. Begum Zia's husband, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, a former army commander who took over two coups later, was elected president in 1978 and murdered in the 1981 coup that led to Ershad's ascendancy.
Both women invite comparisons to other female leaders: Sheik Hasina to Benazir Bhutto, who inherited the Pakistani People's Party from her father after he was killed by political opponents, and Begum Zia to Corazon Aquino, who came to power in the Philippines campaigning on the name of her husband, an assassinated political leader.
"One of the major differences, of course, is that those women, Bhutto and Aquino, were singular opposition figures," a Western diplomat said. "Here the ladies compete more with each other than they do with Ershad. If they could agree to a coalition, they would oust Ershad, but they just can't agree on who would be top dog."
In interviews, both women claimed that they are holding preliminary negotiations on forming a coalition, but aides said neither is prepared to play a secondary role.
In the meantime, they refuse to participate in elections until Ershad steps down, claiming that he would alter the results. Political observers say a splintered opposition couldn't beat Ershad, who refuses to step down. Ershad's aides agree, saying they would be glad to hold elections, which would bolster the government's standing with Western democracies, as soon as the opposition agrees to participate.
"First we must oust the illegal ruler (Ershad). Then we will work on programs," Begum Zia said. "There can be no development without democracy and no social progress under Ershad."
The other problem facing the two women is that this is a fundamentalist Islamic society that generally frowns on women working in anything but menial roles.
The women deny that their sex will be held against them.
"The fundamentalists oppose me, but I am a student of Koran," said Sheikh Hasina, referring to the Muslim holy book. "The Koran teaches equality. There is no reason why a woman can't be leader."