Within days of casting their first votes in an election, Asma Yusuf and Parveen Akhtar mulled over the prospect of a woman leader in Pakistan. ``Benazir Bhutto can and should be prime minister,'' Mrs. Yusuf, a young school teacher said, adjusting a chiffon scarf over her head. ``Women have no rights in our country, and we need to have our rights.''
``Well, it would be okay,'' said Mrs. Akhtar, a housewife who supported the rival anti-Bhutto coalition. ``As long as she remains under Islam.''
The meteoric political rise of Ms. Bhutto, whose party won the most seats in elections Nov. 16, is challenging this conservative society's view of women. Bhutto is likely to be named prime minister tomorrow, and will face a tough job running a new government as Pakistan's first woman leader.
Women here have made few political inroads, although religious history and teachings provide for an equal role with men, observers say. Many women hold office in local governments. However, only once before has a woman, Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, run for the country's highest office.
Late President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq presided over an 11-year era that many consider a harsh setback for Pakistani women, who comprise just under half the nation's 110 million people. Zia's plan to create an Islamic society and replace inherited Western legal codes with Islamic sharia set the clock back for many women. The moves, many Pakistanis say, were aimed mainly at blocking Bhutto, his main foe, from power.
But now, women's rights advocates say they sense a momentum for change.
``Women in Pakistan are really beginning to hope that things will improve for them,'' says Akhtar Riazuddin, head of the government women's division. ``Even in the most conservative corners, women know they no longer face what they have been through in the past 11 years.''
This year, an unprecedented number of women, 13, contested National Assembly seats. Only four were elected, including Bhutto and her mother, Nusrat. In a system which has come under fire from women's activists, Pakistan's parliament also ``reserves'' 20 seats for women nominated by an members of the male-dominated national and provincial assemblies.
During the campaign, Bhutto played down the gender issue as she came under attack from religious fundamentalists who challenged her right to hold office. The debate deteriorated into a mudslinging effort as pamphlets were circulated showing Bhutto's head superimposed on the body of a dancing girl and Nusrat Bhutto dancing with former US President Gerald Ford.
If Bhutto comes to power, a new initiative for women is unlikely, activists say. The reason: A high profile on women's rights could only draw attention to a still contentious issue in Pakistan's male-dominated culture.
Indeed, facing a strong opposition and a wide array of difficult political problems, a failed Bhutto regime could trigger a new conservative backlash against women, some women's advocates worry.
In many parts of the country, women endure poor education, limited movement outside the home, early marriage, frequent pregnancies, low health standards, and a heavy workload. Female literacy, a key indicator of quality of life, is 16 percent, dipping to less than 2 percent in the tradition-bound province of Baluchistan. Overall, literacy for men and women is 26 percent.
Still, 30 percent of teachers and 20 percent of doctors are women. But, in a society where a woman derives her social status from her father and her husband, women are shut out of traditionally male professions. For example, only 140 of Pakistan's more-than 17,000 lawyers are women and only 24 of more than 880 judges.
``Many women work hard and long with little recognition, unequal monetary return, and harsh working conditions,'' says a recent report by the United Nation's Children's Fund. ``In the urban situation, female wage employment is still seen as the whim of upper-income women, taking up jobs as a pastime or status symbol, thus contributing to male unemployment.''
Zia's call for Islamization increased the clout of conservative clergy and religious teachers. Harsh penalties were imposed for adultery; rape laws were changed, diluting protections for women; and a women's testimony carried less weight than a man's in court.
Pressure from women's groups did result in the setting up of a government women's division and a commission on the status of women. So far, however, the government has refused to make the report public because it insists on women's equal rights under religious law, sources say.