Benazir Bhutto: A Friend of Women in Western Eyes, but Not in Pakistan : Governance: In her first term, the prime minister made promises--and accomplished nothing, critics say. Will a second term produce more?
Even at Benazir Bhutto’s political rallies, women take a back seat. At a typical campaign stop in Rawalpindi, the elegant Bhutto faced a packed crowd of more than 30,000 men. Directly behind the stage sat several hundred women in a segregated section. They jostled one another for a view, waved posters and shouted Bhutto’s name, but she never acknowledged them during her hourlong address.
The scene was an apt metaphor for Bhutto’s feeble efforts to assist women. Bhutto is seen by her Western supporters as a champion of women’s rights in the restrictive Islamic world, but at home the perception is much different. Some of her most vocal critics are Pakistani women’s groups, who say she did almost nothing to help women during her previous term in office, from 1988-90, and are demanding she move quickly during her second term.
The young, idealistic Bhutto promised to fight the mullahs when she became the first woman leader of a modern Muslim state. But her campaign promises to Pakistani women evaporated along with her government in 1990, when she was dismissed on charges of corruption after only 20 months in power. During her unhappy tenure, she did not confront the religious fundamentalists and made no attempt to repeal the notorious Hudood Ordinances--laws based on a strict interpretation of the Koran.
The Hudood stipulates, among other things, that a woman who accuses a man of rape must produce four male witnesses to the attack. When she can’t, she is tossed in jail for adultery. Also, a woman’s testimony only counts for half as much as a man’s. These measures were instituted during the martial-law rule of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Bhutto needs a two-thirds majority, which she lacks, to overturn such laws.
In her political life, Bhutto has surrounded herself mostly with men. The only prominent women in her camp during the election were her mother--the two are no longer on speaking terms due to a family feud that erupted during the campaign--and Naheed Khan, a young woman who serves as her personal assistant. Since becoming prime minister, Bhutto has appointed two women to prominent political posts. Newspaper editor Maleeha Lodhi is her ambassador to Washington and Shahnaz Wazir Ali Khan her special adviser on women’s affairs.
This time, Bhutto promises to create separate women’s courts with female judges to deal with the growing number of cases involving crimes against women. She has pledged to restore the special seats reserved for women in the national and provincial assemblies, which expired during her last government.
But Bhutto barely breathed a word about women’s issues during the campaign, and since coming to power, there have been few concrete improvements. “She’s a politician . . . not a women’s rights activist,” said Cassandra Balchin, a member of War Against Rape.
In fairness to Bhutto, she must work within the country’s byzantine political system, which makes it difficult to get things done, and she must deal with an overwhelmingly male power structure that is still having trouble adjusting to a woman prime minister.
When the speaker of the assembly announced that Bhutto had won a majority of 121 seats in the National Assembly, chants of “Long live Benazir” erupted from the segregated women’s gallery. Several dozen members of the Pakistan Muslim League, the official opposition, jumped to their feet to protest the outburst from the women’s gallery. “Throw the women out. Throw the women out,” they shouted in Urdu. Soldiers rushed to the house floor to silence the women.
Pakistani women enjoy more freedom than Muslim women who live in the Gulf states, but in some provinces, tribal law rules and women are traded like chattel. Young girls are often kidnaped and raped to bring disgrace onto a family by their enemies. Arranged marriages to first cousins are common. If a family rejects the offer of marriage to their daughter by a persistent suitor, he may take revenge by throwing acid in the girl’s face, so that no one else will want her.
Bhutto loyalists say it’s unfair to judge her first term, when Zia’s cronies remained such a powerful, obstructionist force. “She was given power very grudgingly,” said Amna Piracha, a longtime Bhutto friend. “The army was after her blood then.”
Piracha, who held one of the 20 reserved seats for women in Benazir’s Parliament, says women’s groups began to criticize Bhutto’s government before giving it a chance. “They harmed her cause and they harmed their own cause.” You have a party which is liberal in its intent and purpose, but faced by constraints and you tear it to bits.”
According to Piracha, Bhutto’s first stint in office improved the atmosphere for women and will do so again. Women began dressing more stylishly, trying to imitate Bhutto. Under Nawaz Sharif, prime minister from 1990 until this past July, more women were forced under the burga , the tent-like garment that covers a woman from head to toe, with only a narrow slit for the eyes.
To her credit, Bhutto started the First Women Bank, which gives loans to female entrepreneurs, and established a jobs quota for women. She even appointed four women to her bloated Cabinet, which had more than 50 ministers. But her government also allowed the expiration of a law providing 20 reserved parliamentary seats for women--a law Bhutto’s father introduced in 1973 when he was prime minister.
Bhutto’s inaction on women’s issues appears to be part of her larger problem in governing--she doesn’t know what she wants to do with the job. During the campaign, she didn’t define what she wanted to do, nor has she made much progress during her first weeks in office. She speaks vaguely of a “public-private partnership,” but it’s difficult to associate her new government with a single program. When she became prime minister in ’88, it was her first paying job, and her lack of organization showed. Her government did not manage to get a single piece of significant legislation passed. If she can’t do so this time, she may not get a third chance.