WHEN South Asia's leaders posed for photos during last week's regional summit here, the image was strikingly different from most gatherings of world leaders. Three of the seven nations (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) have women as heads of state.
South Asian voters, in fact, have elected more women leaders than anywhere else in the world. All of them belong to political dynasties begun by men, in contrast to current women leaders in Turkey, Norway, Iceland, and Ireland.
The legacy of women leaders in South Asia is all the more surprising because of the harsh treatment that women often receive in the region. ''It's amazing,'' says Farah Naz, research associate with the Pakistani chapter of Women Living Under Islamic Law, an international women's-rights group. ''On the one hand, there are discriminatory laws against women, and yet people have elected a woman as prime minister.''
Women's-rights activists had hoped that South Asia's female leaders would improve the plight of women in each country. But critics say that has not been the case.
For instance, Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has not challenged Islamic laws and customs that are discriminatory.
In Pakistan, a woman who claims she was raped must produce four witnesses or face imprisonment for adultery. ''Women in Pakistan are as much exploited under a woman prime minister as they were under a male prime minister,'' says Farooq Tariq, a labor organizer in Lahore.
Throughout South Asia, girls are far less likely than boys to receive an education and are subject to many abuses. They are often harassed -- and sometimes murdered -- for not providing enough dowry to their husbands. Women rarely rise to the top of their professions and earn far less than their male counterparts.
Ms. Bhutto, for one, defends her record on women's issues, pointing out that she has opened the country's first all-women police stations, as well as a women's bank.
Other observers are not impressed. ''There have been cosmetic changes, but these are model programs that affect very few people,'' says Paula Newberg, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Bhutto's supporters say she can't be expected to focus exclusively on women's issues. ''She is not a single-issue prime minister,'' says Shafqat Mahmood, an adviser to Bhutto. ''She ... has lots of other objectives.'' Perhaps more important, Bhutto's fragile coalition government includes several conservative religious parties that object to any changes to Pakistan's Islamic law.
South Asia's current female leaders seem to have taken their cue from respected female politicians of the past, including Britain's Margaret Thatcher, India's Indira Gandhi, and Israel's Golda Meir. They all made it a point to distance themselves from women's causes. ''I am not a woman prime minister,'' Mrs. Gandhi often told reporters. ''I am a prime minister.''
South Asia's women leaders have something else in common: They were all propelled into office after the death of their husbands or fathers, often at the hands of assassins. Bangladesh's Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is the widow of former military dictator Gen. Zia-ur-Rahman. Pakistan's Bhutto is the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister who was executed by the military in 1979. Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was elected president of Sri Lanka last year, lost both her father and her husband to political violence.
The women came to power through ''an accident of association,'' says Pran Chopra, a political analyst with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. ''They owe [their successes] to the memories of their husbands and fathers.''
Dynasty may have indeed played an important role in their rise to power, but South Asia's female politicians argue that name alone does not explain their success. ''There are many women all over the world whose husbands have been associated with politics, but how many of them try to assert themselves?'' asks Najma Heptullah, deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, India's upper house of Parliament. ''You can come to power by name, but then you have to prove yourself.''
Three of the nations headed by women -- Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey -- are Islamic countries. Ms. Bhutto governs the most religiously conservative of them. When her Pakistan People's Party was elected for the first time in 1989, several members of the legislature from religious parties refused to participate in the vote to ratify Bhutto's nomination. But those kinds of protests are rare. Few politicians in Pakistan have attempted to make Bhutto's gender an issue. ''Islam in our part of the world does not frown upon women acquiring positions of leadership,'' says Najum Sethi, editor of the Friday Times in Lahore.
India, a mainly Hindu country, also has a deeply rooted respect for women leaders because ''in traditional Indian society, the mother-figure is a very powerful figure,'' Mr. Chopra says. He points out that the Hindu goddess Durga is one of the most powerful deities in the Hindu pantheon.
The three women leaders of South Asia all face political crises at home. Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, has been caught in a spiral of sectarian violence, with more than 1,200 people killed in the past year. Sri Lanka faces an escalation of the country's 12-year civil war with the Tamil Tigers. And Bangladesh's government has endured numerous strikes and boycotts organized by the opposition party.
South Asia's endemic political violence has sometimes led to bizarre political scenarios, where wives and daughters of slain leaders find themselves pitted against one another. For instance, last year's Sri Lankan presidential election was dubbed the ''Battle of the Widows'' as Ms. Kumaratunga ran against Srima Dissanayake, widow of the opposition candidate, who was killed two weeks earlier in a suicide-bomb attack. In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Zia has been engaged in a bitter rivalry with Sheikh Hasina, leader of the country's leftist opposition party and herself the daughter of a slain political leader. In India, Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is considered one of the most powerful political figures -- even though she holds no elected office.
Women in South Asia may have obtained the highest office, but they have mostly selected men as their Cabinet members and advisers. And few Asian women hold seats in parliament. In Sri Lanka, for instance, only about 5 percent of members of Parliament are women. In Pakistan the figure is 1 percent.
Worldwide, women have not fared much better. Their share of seats in parliaments has dropped from 13 percent in 1991 to 10 percent in 1993. In only six countries do women hold a quarter or more of their country's legislative seats. Four of those nations are Scandinavian.
In the past, the exclusive club of women leaders has included those who have left a big mark on history, including Britain's Thatcher, Israel's Meir, and India's Gandhi.
The family of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister -- his daughter Indira Gandhi and subsequently her son Rajiv -- have played a unique role in modern India. Mrs. Gandhi was a forceful and highly controversial leader who ruled off and on for 15 years until she was assassinated in 1984.
Analysts see little evidence to suggest that the large number of current women leaders in South Asia signifies a trend. ''The way these women made it into politics suggests very little about their being women and everything about their names,'' says Carnegie's Ms. Newberg. ''These women could have been men.''
India recently passed a constitutional amendment that reserves one-third of seats on local councils for women. Supporters say it is intended to nurture a new generation of women leaders who do not depend on family ties. ''We want them to have an awareness from the grass-roots level,'' says India's deputy chairman Heptullah. ''Otherwise, people will say 'Somebody's husband or father died, and she came to power.' ''