The two horrific consecutive attacks carried out in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15 2019, have been labelled as the worst terrorist attacks in New Zealand’s modern history. The assaults are a visible manifestation of growing white supremacism and alt-right extremism worldwide. Yet, amongst this great heartache and immense tragedy emerges a force of unlimited strength, determined to stand up for the rights of her citizens and bring about political change: Jacinda Ardern.
When Ardern became Prime Minister of New Zealand in October 2017, not many would have pictured her as a figure that would propel their nation into the global spotlight. She became leader to a country that historically was not famous for making international headlines. She lived an ordinary life, still sharing the same three-bedroom sub-urban house with her partner that she had prior to her appointment as PM. She was pregnant whilst in office and gave birth to her first child in 2018. She could not be hailed as the first female PM of New Zealand, and despite being 38, she is not the youngest either. Her centre-left party, Labour, did not gain enough votes to win with a majority, and Ardern was stuck in a partnership with New Zealand First. Subsequently, she was viewed as a figure that would simply ‘get on’ with domestic and international policies with minimum fanfare.
Yet, Ardern’s extraordinary response to the attacks has sent a wave of ‘Jacinda-mania’ across the world.
Within a day of the attacks she donned a black head scarf, greeted Muslim leaders with the Arabic greeting ‘Assalaam-alaikum,’ and took time to talk to each of the families of the victims. In an era when terrorism has created great divisions within society, Ardern has successfully and strategically managed to unify her nation. Yet, this unity is not created through symbolically opposing a political ‘other,’ as was done in the aftermath of 9/11. Rather, Ardern has openly rejected the inhumanity of the attackers, and has not shied away from stating that racism and Islamophobia in New Zealand are the root causes of this intolerable attack. ‘You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you’ were her words at her first address after the shooting.
Her government fast-tracked visas for families wanting to attend the funerals of their loved ones and she allowed a leading imam to open parliament proceedings with a prayer. By doing so, she has united her nation in the belief that these racist ideologies have no place in New Zealand’s multicultural nation. Her ability to quickly unify her country has prevented other extremists from capitalising on the first attacks.
Moreover, unlike many politicians who simply brush similar issues aside through highly fabricated and empty rhetorical speeches, she has actually confronted the attacks directly and has driven tangible change. She has taken action by contacting Facebook, where the terrorist shooting had been livestreamed, to hold social media accountable for assisting in the rise of extremism. Fundamentally, she has achieved what is still merely a dream of any anti-NRA American. With agreement from the conservative opposition party, she has changed the country’s gun laws and banned all assault rifles and the same military-style semi-automatics that were used in the attacks. This is hailed as a major achievement in a country that has a large rural population.
Interestingly, Ardern’s unique display of compassion and genuine concern has often been tied to the fact that she is a woman. Newspapers and major tabloids have praised her typically ‘feminine’ response to the attacks. Having given birth whilst in office, her response has also been praised for its caring and even ‘motherly’ characteristics.
This should not be the case.
When reading these headlines I found myself growing increasingly aggravated that even in 2019, a leader’s emotional and compassionate side is intrinsically tied to the fact that she is female. It almost seemed as though these news stories were justifying the absence of this response from other world leaders simply because they were male. Jacinda Ardern’s outstanding action in the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings is not because she is a woman. Her response is because she is a human who cares. I believe that if other politicians and world leaders acted with the same level of humanity, compassion, sincerity, understanding, and love that Ardern has in the last two weeks, the world would be a much more politically progressive place.
So, in a world of Trumps who are fuelling the rise of white supremacism and who desire to build walls to keep out immigrants, Modis who don’t accept the range of human rights violations in their own nation, and Mays who fail to deliver deals despite having two years to do so, we need more Arderns.