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Bhutto's rise carved path for Pakistani women

But analysts say the slain leader was adept at transcending the politics of gender.

By Huma YusufContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2008

Legacy: The slain former Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto empowered many Pakistani women. Above, women rallied in Karachi after her 1999 corruption conviction.

Zia Mazhar/AP/FILE


Karachi, Pakistan

When Tourism Minister Nilofer Bakhtiar came under attack from hard-line clerics after she was photographed embracing a man in public, Benazir Bhutto was quick to defend her.

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"Benazir and I grew close when she issued a strong statement from Dubai in my favor. Her words were very encouraging because at that time, even my own party was not giving me any support and was, instead, asking for me to step down."

Ms. Bakhtiar eventually kept her position in the government but the controversy that stemmed from the May 2007 photo and an ensuing fatwa from fundamentalist clerics illustrates the ongoing struggle for many Pakistani women, especially for those who step beyond traditional roles to lead public lives.

It was a tension that followed Ms. Bhutto's career to the very end as an influential figure who broke the gender barrier here to become prime minister and along the way inspired a generation of female Pakistani leaders.

When Bakhtiar was just starting out in politics, Bakhtiar remembers how she "used to look up to Bhutto as the only strong female leader in Pakistan."

But now the tourism minister, who was previously president of the women's wing of the Pakistan Muslim League, Quaid-e-Azam, which opposes Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), worries that middle-class women who may have been considering careers in politics will think twice before signing up.

"Women are going to think that you have to be extraordinary and exceedingly brave to enter politics ... and that will keep them away," she says.

Many female politicians and analysts here say that it was Bhutto's ability to transcend the politics of gender that enabled her to rise to the top.

The restoration of democracy, poverty reduction, and the threat posed by religious extremism were her core issues. As Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) puts it, "Benazir was a politician, not a women's rights activist."

And indeed, Bhutto was regularly critiqued for failing to improve the status of Pakistani women through policy initiatives or legislation. She disappointed activists when she did not repeal the Hudood and Zina ordinances, laws that impede women's rights and indict rape victims on the charges of adultery.

Hina Jilani, a human rights activist who cofounded the first all-female legal practice in Pakistan, complains that Bhutto never "showed the political commitment to addressing legal discrimination against women."

In Bhutto's defense, HRW's Mr. Hasan points out that "to the extent that she could bring pressure to bear to ensure that the rights of women and minorities were upheld, she did."

He recalls that during Bhutto's terms in office, the trials of raped women facing adultery charges and members of religious minorities accused of blasphemy were expedited, and often decided in the defendant's favor.