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.