What Benazir did (not do) for women

Published: June 30, 2010

The writer read social anthropology at Oxford and is an independent consultant ([email protected])

In 1988 Benazir Bhutto emerged as the most powerful symbol in contemporary politics for women, as she became the first elected female head of state in the Muslim world. Her presence as a political leader in a patriarchal society appeared both as a paradox and as denotative of a psychological revolution, where she represented democracy to the people of Pakistan and appeared to reverse the masculinisation of public space brought about by military regimes. She symbolised the normalisation of women in politics and immediately countered the invisibility of women heightened under Ziaul Haq’s regime. Her regime lifted press censorship that marked a change in the media’s portrayal of women. By the end of July 1989 Bhutto’s government had allocated Rs100 million toward the establishment of a women’s bank that has been hailed as “the first tangible and meaningful step towards recognising the Pakistani woman as an independent economic entity.”

Due to the controversy surrounding her election as prime minister where Islamist principles argued against the appointment of a female head of state, Benazir found it vital to function within the existing Islamist framework and used examples from Islamic history and scriptures to defend her public presence. Critics have argued that her adoption of the chadar on her head and of the Islamic idiom to justify her presence in politics entrapped women in the discourse that was predominant before her election. This discourse allowed the manipulation of religion to regulate women and serve specific political interests. Women leaders have frequently taken precautions in their public appearance so as not to offend the religious/cultural sentiments of the majority, invariably covering their head, though in private life they may not follow this custom. Benazir used the Islamist idiom, arguing against misconceptions regarding the status of women in Islam as a consequence of an adulteration of ‘pure’ religion, a syncretised phenomenon where Islam has been adulterated by tribal traditions.

Despite these efforts, and Benazir Bhutto’s symbolic significance, the situation of women under her regime did not in fact undergo a ‘revolution’. Bhutto could not challenge many laws that existed under the name of Islam. Apologists have argued that her regime had no choices since it governed through fragile coalition. Once in power, in order to sustain her government and appease the opposition and Islamist lobbyists, it became more costly to revoke the previous government’s policies, especially regarding women. Despite the fact that women’s issues found a place in the manifesto of the PPP, gender issues did not become a priority for the new government, in the absence of a broadly based alliance between women’s organisations as well as due to political currents that derived strength from the support of the marginalised strata of society. Significantly, Bhutto’s government refrained from repealing Ziaul Haq’s 9th amendment, a law that introduced far-reaching changes pertaining to women. Many state policies on gender remained within the aegis of Islamic law or were of symbolic rather than lasting significance. Thus Benazir’s policies on gender are ambivalently received. It is not entirely clear whether they are propelled by a desire to create a more gender egalitarian society or to appease Islamist factions. For this reason her government suffered admonishment and criticism from Islamic factions and women’s rights activists alike.

More significantly, Benazir’s politics, whilst linking Islam and gender, have been far less effective in identifying the link of politics of class with the struggle for women’s rights. Women who led the vocal protests against Islamic laws were also the ones least likely to suffer their consequences. The gender balance in Pakistani society is unlikely to be restored until such time as the urban middle and upper class women grasp the contradiction between an attachment to social privileges flowing from the class accommodations of their families and the social subservience that is their fate as women. Given the peculiarities of the Pakistani context, gender-related strategies are unlikely to succeed without a conscious forging of political alignments based on the socio-economic interests of the subordinate classes, rather than those of the dominant classes for whom Islam has been a convenient umbrella to legitimise their accommodations with the state.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2010.

Reader Comments (20)

  • faraz
    Jun 30, 2010 - 2:21AM

    Her interior minister launched the taliban. Thousands of poor indoctrinated children were ruthlessly exploited during Afghan civil war in the name of jihad. So much for her liberalism!Recommend

  • Noor Nabi
    Jun 30, 2010 - 2:31AM

    Now that BB is no longer in our midst I, personally, prefer not to comment too much on her successes and failures. The mere fact that she opted to don a veil over her head and started carrying a string of prayer beads in her hand – both symbols of conservatism, at odds with her liberal views of yonder years – reflect the compromises that she chose to make in order to get power into her hands. Like most human beings she had her strong points as well as her flaws. On top of that it was not an easy task to quickly undo the obscene bigotry and hard-core intolerance that Zia had incorporated into the constitution under the guise of religion.

    We should now be spending more time dwelling on the present and looking forward into the future to define a course that will be respectful of the role of women in a modern and moderate state; there is no room now for misogynist thought to flourish. Kashmalia certainly seems to be a gifted and promising young woman, also at Oxford, and one hopes that upon her return to Pakistan she will work towards completing the mission that could not be fully accomplished during the rule of BB.Recommend

  • Jun 30, 2010 - 3:25AM

    The Chaddar can be seen as both a religious (mazhabi) symbol or a cultural (sakafati) symbol. Is the chaddar intrinsically linked to an Islamized polity or are it’s roots more South Asian in origin? Secondly, the gender imbalance within the PPP is much less compared to other parties. Women rank-and-file members are equally proactive in comparison to their male counterparts. As far as legislation is concerned, the PPP has had very little space to maneuver on the gender front, each time its government has come into power. Appeasement of coalition partners might seem to like political expediency to the author, but it can also be seen as political reality. Finally, the women harassment bill passed by the government shows that when given space and political capital, the PPP is capable of producing gender sensitive legislation.Recommend

  • Neena
    Jun 30, 2010 - 7:08AM

    Kashmali I hear you, but one need to fight fire with fire.

    As for Benazir not able to change anything – I think she never given the power to change, but she certainly paved the way to advancement. We have conservatives planned in very important positions and they’re scared of women intelligence.Recommend

  • cmsarwar
    Jun 30, 2010 - 8:29AM

    I do not agree with Noor Nabi that BB’s tragic death bars us from discussion of her successes and failures.What she achieved,or did not achieve,as two times Prime Minister and head of the most popular political party of Pakistan for a very long time is the property of historians and analysts.I personally think she should not have rushed into assuming power by accepting all those unworthy compromises imposed on her by the Establishment.Therefore,on all major issues of principle she was powerless.She would have been a better and maturer Prime Minister if she had spent one term as leader of opposition instead of assuming the crippled office of Prime minister.She could organise her party and focus on her workers .But even otherwise I do not think she had the preparation for,and the vision of,a mature politician not to speak of a statesman.After a long absence in exile and due to the premature and untimely SHAHADAT of our beloved Zia she was picked up for the ceremonial job of Prime Minister.I think both BB and Hubby Zardari started enjoying it and stopped learning the actual obligations and functions of this office.Hence,the disaster of even her second term.She did not mature as a leader but Hubby Zardari did discover what a limitless goldmine a political office in Pakistan could be.
    Leaders build a nation by bringing about harmony in national thinking and conduct.They determine and plan policies for the next generations.Kashmali khan talks about lack of BB’s impact on the plight of women.What about her impact on the entire nation? I feel sad that she died a tragic death in spite of her last major achievement–the great NRO, a legacy of no benefit to the nation but her great gift to a loving and grief-stricken Hubby.Recommend

  • Jasmine
    Jun 30, 2010 - 9:15AM

    Similar views to that of Irshad Manji (Personal Dislike) .. http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/12/29/pakistan.commentary/index.html

    Its strange how everyone has to latch on to the negatives. We are in a society filled with conservatives and conservatives who believe they are liberal. Dictatorship starts at home and continues throughout the life of any Pakistani. Father, teacher , boss, rulers .. its everywhere. Even the feminists and liberals are staunch unwavering believers of their stance and DO not listen to things someone else has to stay.
    Whatever Ms. Bhutto did might or might not have an effect .. but she did lead a couple of million hearts and minds. That in itself is an achievement in this society. Recommend

  • Morial Shah
    Jun 30, 2010 - 12:10PM

    Kashmali Khan’s article is an exercise in self-contradiction. She concedes that Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s (SMBB) election to office reversed the masculanisation of the public sphere and counteracted the invisibility of women under Zia ul Haq’s tyrannical regime. Moreover, Ms Khan rightly acknowledges that SMBB’s first government lifted press censorship which altered the media’s portrayal of women, and established the First Women’s Bank for women’s economic empowerment. However, Ms Khan fails to mention that under SMBB’s governments several women police stations were established to give women greater access to law enforcement agencies and Lady Health Workers were trained to provide basic health facilities. None of these measures suggest that SMBB did not do anything for women, or that she did not try her best to do what she could do.
    Ms Khan’s prime contention with SMBB’s tenures is that Mohtarma’s regimes couldn’t challenge many laws that ‘existed under the name of Islam’. True, they could not, and would not challenge every law that existed ‘under the name of Islam’ because PPP’s manifesto recognizes Islam as the religion of the people. However, PPP has always opposed Zia ul Haq’s draconian Hudood Laws. In the 90s, PPP governments neither had the numbers, nor the political support required to remove those laws. As the writer correctly notes, SMBB had to function with within the “Islamic framework” and use examples from Islamic “history and scriptures” to support her public role. It would be unfair of Ms Khan to condemn SMBB for doing so – Mohtarma’s most vitriolic critics were sections of the establishment and clergy which used Islam to criticise her position as chief executive. Therefore, Ms Bhutto saw it in fit to use examples from her faith to defend her leadership position.
    And lest we forget, it’s a tad harsh of the writer to criticize the impact of Mohtarma’s policy for women during two brief stints in office. If the writer criticized SMBB after Mohtarma’s government was allowed to complete its term, I would accept Ms Khan’s criticism of policy decisions as valid. However, as of now, I consider her criticism half-baked.
    Moreover, since Ms Khan seems to be concerned about policy, it’s relevant to remember that SMBB committed to persevere for women’s emancipation at the Beijing Conference in 1995 and made Pakistan a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1996 ( CEDAW was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly).
    Following Mohtarma’s initiatives to make policy gender sensitive, the present PPP government has taken several women friendly policy measures. They include passing the Protection of Women against Harassment at the Workplace Bill, initiating the Benazir Income Support program to help women provide sustenance to their families, granting land to land less female haris (43,000 acres of land have been allocated to 4000 women) and several other schemes.Recommend

  • Mahvesh
    Jun 30, 2010 - 12:15PM

    I completely agree with this article – especially more so now, when BB is propped up as a role model for women and how she did so much for oppressed women in the country. Really? Did she? I could argue Musharraf did far more than she ever achieved with regard to laws that targeted women.

    As for those who say what she did ‘might or might not have an effect’… are you kidding me? We’re talking about an ex-Prime Minister’s achievements, not attacking her personal life. We fully have a right to do that.Recommend

  • Patriot
    Jun 30, 2010 - 12:16PM

    people only praising her `cause she is dead..otherwise she and her accomplices were the most corrupt! Recommend

  • Anis Memon
    Jun 30, 2010 - 12:33PM

    First of all the writer should correct her language when referring Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, who was an elected Prime Minister by Peoples of Pakistan, yet even present government of PPP is elected through votes of Pakistanis who belive in Mohtarma’s policies. So peoples opinion should be respected by referring their leader in proper way.

    Second, before looking on Mohtarma’s previous governments performance we have the right to ask the writer, What other PMs and Dictators had done so far for Womens in Pakistan? All journalists are welcome to give a comparison of Shaheed Mohtarma’s policies for Women cause with other regimes.

    Third, a few steps are mentioned below done by Mohtarma’s two government for Women cause.
    1. The PPP government passed the ‘Abolishment of Punishment for Whipping Act, 1996, reversing the mandatory whipping punishments for Zina and Zina bil Jabr in the Hudood Ordinances.
    2. Code of Criminal Act, 1994 was passed granting protection to women from coercive police action.
    3. The PPP Govt established Women in Distress Fund Act for legal assistance to women.
    4. The PPP Govt established the National Commission on the Status of Women, Crisis Centre for Women, Burn Units, Women Police Stations, hostels for working women, vocational training programmes, computer training centres and Centre of Excellence for Women Studies across the country. Gender Sensitization Training Programmes were launched across the federal and Provincial Government departments.
    5. The PPP Govt initiated the largest public sector women employment program of Lady Health Workers, establishing a network of 133,000 health practitioners to service rural and urban households in Pakistan.
    6. Job quotas for women in the public service were established.
    7. Her government also released thousands of women from jail put there under the Hudood Ordinance.
    8. Women judges were appointed all over the High and District courts
    9. The Human Rights ministry established by the PPP was careful to ensure that resource-strapped women were not left in jails due to bail payments they could not afford.
    10.A Women’s Sports Board was established to promote women’s participation in sports and prepare Pakistani Women athletes for international competitions.

    The steps taken by present PPP government are historical achievements for women in Pakistan, significantly the Benazir Income support Programme which serves directly poor women of Pakistan and its true reflection of dreams by our Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Women protection at work place bill.

    Last but not least Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto will remain a symbolic leader in the heart of peoples of Pakistan despite the efforts by peoples like you.Recommend

  • Azeem
    Jun 30, 2010 - 3:51PM

    I dont think the chadar or the prayer beads for that matter are any sort of restriction. i think the only restrictions are what we build up inside our headsiRecommend

  • YASIR RAZA KHAN
    Jun 30, 2010 - 5:54PM

    Kashmali I hear you, but one need to fight fire with fire.

    As for Benazir not able to change anything – I think she never given the power to change, but she certainly paved the way to advancement. We have conservatives planned in very important positions and they’re scared of women intelligence.
    I completely agree with this article – especially more so now, when BB is propped up as a role model for women and how she did so much for oppressed women in the country. Really? Did she? I could argue Musharraf did far more than she ever achieved with regard to laws that targeted women. As for those who say what she did ‘might or might not have an effect’… are you kidding me? We’re talking about an ex-Prime Minister’s achievements, not attacking her personal life. We fully have a right to do that.Recommend

  • Rabia
    Jun 30, 2010 - 8:03PM

    It’s quite rare for a working woman to not cover her head in public. Why should BB be faulted for doing what almost all Pakistani women do? Also, practically speaking, with the kind of propaganda that the ISI had sponsored against her in 1988, she needed some protection from claims that she was an amoral, westernized woman. And the ninth amendment was never passed – Zia dissolved the NA before it could vote on it.Recommend

  • saher
    Jun 30, 2010 - 8:57PM

    i second anis memon… :) Recommend

  • cmsarwar
    Jul 1, 2010 - 7:33AM

    While I have all the respect for Anis Memon’s feelings I do not find enough evidence in facts to second him.First of all Anis is fascinated with popular vote and popularly elected governments in Pakistan.He ignores the historical and well-established fact that the so-called popular vote in Pakistan is scientifically and deftly manipulated by the powers that hold this unlucky country in a tight grip .Elections are given the appearance of a popular vote but the pre-selected and pre-approved political arrangement is established so as to ensure continuity of already settled agenda.All elected leaders,therefore,were unable to deliver because of the limits imposed on them by the establishment.Furthermore,given our existing situation our elections do not produce MNAs/MPAs representing the common man.Look at our assemblies and what is happening there.I agree with Anis to the extent that BB took a number of steps in the right direction.But we are talking about her impact on the national landscape.Don’t you realise we are indeed in a very bad shape.Recommend

  • Shafa Ullah Butt
    Jul 1, 2010 - 11:06AM

    Mr. Memon is a sincere PPP guy, how ever it has only won less then 40% of the popular votes in all the previous elections. Which makes us support that a great majority of the people in this country differ with the policies of PPP? Besides its a political party and Benazir (May Allah Bless her Soul) was a political leader….. We already have plenty of “Guddi Nasheen” & “Majawars” in this nation at least I don’t need one more. She may be a great leader and yes she was. But she was only a human being and if you do not say “Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto” no body shall make you say so

    She used chaddar for as she really wanted to cover her head or it was political point scoring its her matter with the Almighty … I and most people around here shell be concerned what she did for this country … which I believe she did other then leaving a legacy in shape of kinship which is riding our necks right nowRecommend

  • talha
    Jul 1, 2010 - 11:38AM

    May God rest her soul in peace.

    Anis memon sb, be relax, actions speaks louder then words. Whatever you have written is self explanatory as no one feels the difference.

    The common man is in agony with the corruption of our leaders and now its time for a change and the transformation will emerge from the top leadership.

    I request to all the readers that they should consider the point of view in the perspective of your nation rather then the individual personalities. BB is not with us but her legacy is here and her acts that are creating problems and demoralizing the enthusiasm of our nation.

    Well done kashmali for bringing the real picture of our leadership as a mirror for the next generation. Keep it up the good work.Recommend

  • Jul 1, 2010 - 7:21PM

    Lets see how’s the real condition of women after all the steps taken by different people mentionedin comment section and in some in article too.

    2009 another dismal year for womenRecommend

  • Salman M
    Jul 1, 2010 - 7:32PM

    A well-written analysis of the overrated Benazir Bhutto. Its good to see writers that paint a true picture and stand on the right side of history. Recommend

  • Muhammad Siddiq
    Jul 23, 2010 - 11:28AM

    A good, informative analysis of the overrated leader Benazir Bhutto. Its nice to see writers that sketch a true picture with natural colors in the history. Recommend

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