As a shocked and numb Pakistan mourns the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, it is indeed difficult to find words that would provide comfort to a grieving nation at the sudden demise of one of its most iconic leaders. As tributes to the slain former prime minister focus on her political career and her courageous embrace of her father’s legacy, it is also crucial to focus on what the life and death of Benazir Bhutto meant for Pakistani women.
The struggles that marked the end of Benazir Bhutto’s life can well be considered personifications of the challenges facing Pakistani women in the sixtieth year of the country’s existence. In the culmination of an ongoing struggle that lasted years, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan on October 18, 2007 to combat both military authoritarianism and religious extremism.
These twin evils, and the fact that they eventually claimed her life, are representative indeed of the condition of Pakistani women, who are beset both by challenges from an authoritarian government that provides only lip service to their claims as well as religious extremists who would like to eliminate women from public political spaces.
Regardless of one’s political leanings, the presence of a woman as the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party presented an image of the Pakistani woman as courageous, valiant and equal in every way to a man. Undaunted by unruly crowds of men, Benazir Bhutto’s indomitable spirit on the campaign trail represented to Pakistani women what every one of them was capable of.
For Westerners used to looking down on Muslim and ‘eastern’ women as inherently submissive and incapable of leadership, her presence alone was a trenchant counter-argument against age-old orientalist stereotypes. Her representation of Islam as a faith that venerates women and welcomes their leadership obliterated and exposed the medieval and extremist interpretation of groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Ultimately, her presence as an unfailing champion of democracy, unfazed even under the pressing challenges of exile as well as threats to her life, showed the strength of her ideological commitment to serving the Pakistani people. And for all this she paid a terrible price.
In her last months on the campaign path, Benazir Bhutto exposed just how devastating eight years of military rule have been for the Pakistani people, and Pakistani women in particular. In a country where political space is defined not by the rule of law but by the cadres of authoritarian military rulers who seek to appease religious extremists rather than challenge them, her re-emergence reminded people about meaningful religious moderation.
In carving out a nuanced position that opposed both military authoritarianism and religious extremism, her presence revealed how both these forces were coalescing to produce a repressive system which presented either theological fiat or dictatorial edict as the basis of governance. Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan sought to bring back people, especially women, into the political arena and re-invigorate democratic politics in a country where democracy and the will of the people remains yet a distant dream.
Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid, no initiatives were launched to provide poor women with better education or opportunities for self-empowerment. While public claims were made to combat religious extremism, Taliban militias in the North West Frontier Province continued to prey on women. Women were ordered to wear burkas and and pro-Taliban radio stations continued to broadcast threats against women who failed to cover themselves up completely. Girls’ schools were shut down, and those that refused to comply were attacked, while security forces failed to effectively clamp down on extremist activities. In essence, military authoritarianism always chose to prioritise appeasing religious extremism over empowering Pakistani women or coming to their aid.
In a country where women are routinely treated like chattel and exchanged to settle family disputes and tribal vendettas, where they earn far less than their male counterparts, where no laws exist to protect them when they enter the workplace, the presence of a woman at the epicentre of politics was an achievement and a glimmer of hope.
While it is true that Benazir may have been helped along by the political legacy of her father, her continued commitment to democratic politics and to the women of Pakistan demonstrated unequivocally that silence and submission are not the only choices for Pakistani women. A mother and a wife herself, faced by threats to her own life as well as to the well being of her family, Benazir Bhutto could have chosen a comfortable life away from the vagaries of politics and the demands of public service. Instead, she chose to put her own life at stake for the well being of a country whose future seems increasingly precarious and where women are successively condemned to greater invisibility despite their ongoing contributions to society.
In essence then, the life and death of Benazir Bhutto represented both the challenges faced by and the incredible potential of the Pakistani woman. Her life demonstrated to Pakistani women and to the world that a woman could lead a Muslim country and be a champion for democracy. Her death presents Pakistani women with a choice; they can choose to honour her legacy and realise their incredible potential by consciously choosing to oppose the forces of religious extremism and military authoritarianism or they can cower before the forces that seek to marginalise their existence.
Rafia Zakaria is associate editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney and member of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women. She teaches courses on constitutional law and political philosophy. This article previously appeared in Daily Times (Pakistan).