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What 'weaker' sex?

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The German chancellor and the U.S. secretary of state stood side by side this week at a news conference in Berlin, dealing with such sensitive issues as alleged secret U.S.-run prisons abroad and the controversial U.S. practice of "extraordinary rendition" - transporting prisoners to secret locations abroad for interrogation and, some critics claim, torture.

Both the German - Angela Merkel - and the American - Condoleezza Rice - are women. That, happily, is no longer remarkable. Women have served in top posts going back many decades - in India, Sri Lanka, Norway, Britain; their numbers continue to grow and to reach into unexpected places. Last month, for the first time, a woman - Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf - was elected president of an African country, Liberia.

OAS_AD('Button20'); In some countries, women are guaranteed a fixed percentage of seats in the national parliament. One of those nations is Iraq, where women are assured 25 percent of seats in the body to be elected Dec. 15. That's actually fewer than the 32 seats they hold in the interim assembly. Afghanistan has the same 25 percent quota; in Sweden, 45 percent of lawmakers are women. And 14 women now sit in the U.S. Senate, up from one just over a generation ago.

Welcome as this trend is, it is no guarantee of success, either for the female officeholder or her country. Indira Gandhi's troubled rule in India was marred by her imposition of rule by decree and her temporary expulsion from office (she was later assassinated). Margaret Thatcher dominated British politics for more than a decade but was ousted when her Conservative Party colleagues decided she had become obdurate.

The presence of growing numbers of women in public office has not only become widely accepted but also popular. In Latin America, widely seen as the homeland of machismo, a 2000 Gallup Poll cited in Newsweek found that 62 percent thought women would do better than men in fighting poverty, 53 percent that they would make better diplomats and 72 percent that they would do more to promote education.

And while Saudi Arabian women still can't drive or travel without a man's permission, two women have just been elected to the board of the chamber of commerce in Jiddah, the country's major commercial city. By Saudi standards, that's progress.

Another measure of progress is that women politicians get no free passes. Rice has spent much time, at home and during her European visit, defending the Bush administration's policy of transferring terrorist suspects to secret foreign sites. At the Berlin news conference she obliquely acknowledged that in one case, U.S. agents seized the wrong man - Khaled al-Masri, a Lebanese-born German suspected of involvement in the 9/11 plot who was taken to Afghanistan and, he says, tortured by U.S. agents.

In Berlin, Chancellor Merkel accepted Rice's assurances that the United States conducts anti-terror operations legally and said al-Masri's case will be taken up by the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. She's no likelier to be treated with kid gloves in that debate than she was during a rough-and-tumble election battle that she barely won.

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