Benazir Bhutto: An Imperfect Feminist

From the moment she appeared on the international scene, she was destined to be an icon. To the West, Benazir Bhutto, the first democratically-elected woman to lead a Muslim nation, looked like a Disney drawing of a beautiful fairytale princess from an animated fable set somewhere in the mysterious Orient. Deftly wielding her Ivy League education, she had plenty of intelligence to accompany her beauty and charm, as well as an uncanny ability to synthesize the aspirations of her South Asian nation with the longings of its Western patrons.

To the West at large, she spoke the language of secular democracy. To American women, Bhutto spoke the language of feminism, filling a void left by the absence of a female American counterpart to mirror her ascent to power in Pakistan.

Even after she was put out of office on corruption charges during her second stint as prime minister (1993 to 1996), she remained a romantic figure in the annals of popular feminism. In Beijing, at the 1999 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Bhutto advocated for the empowerment of women through education, employment and "population control." She railed against female infanticide and misogynist interpretations of Islam. "In distinguishing between Islamic teachings and social taboos," Bhutto told the conference, "we must remember that Islam forbids injustice -- injustice against people, against nations, against women."

Yet the language she spoke most fluently was that of symbolism. In Bhutto's projected image lived a meeting of East and West, and a glimpse at what a modern South Asia could be: cosmopolitan, erudite, stylish, and friendly to the West. To run for office in a nation in which tribal codes cloaked in religion kept most women from public life, Bhutto donned a headscarf -- not an item that had been, up to that point, a regular part of her wardrobe. But she wore it in an acutely stylized and regal manner -- always white, loose, flowing, perched far enough back on her head to accent her high cheekbones and gleaming dark hair. It said, "I am woman." It said, "I am timeless."

The eldest child of a leading family in what is still a feudal nation, Bhutto had been endowed by her father with the means to pursue a path to power. "If my father had not educated me or left me with independent financial means, I would not have been able to sustain myself or to struggle against tyranny..." she said in her speech to the U.N. Conference on Women. So empowered, in fact, that she apparently felt no threat in having her mother arrange her marriage, at the age of 35, for the sake of appeasing her nation's social-conservative set. It was only months later, in 1988, that Bhutto won her first stint as Pakistan's prime minister.

With her ruling-class pedigree, Bhutto's gender was no impediment; it was, perhaps, her best accessory. Her red-lipsticked visage on an election poster offered a promise of modernity in a nation that suffered an inferiority complex next to its rival and motherland, India. Her very womanhood signaled a departure from the two main directors of Pakistani politics: the generals and the mullahs.

Just two months ago, prompted by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Bhutto said of Pakistan's Islamist groups, "[T]hey don't believe in women governing nations, so they will try to plot against me, but these are risks that must be taken. I'm prepared to take them."

Almost as soon as news of her assassination reached the U.S. media, the narrative of her life and death was set: Bhutto was Pakistan's last hope for democracy; she risked life and limb to save her country, especially its children. She was almost certainly, the story goes, killed by al Qaeda or the Taliban -- or people just like them. The narrative, like Bhutto's murder, is predictable. She had written much of it herself. We in the West, hungry for a leader in the land of al Qaeda who we could understand -- and who seemed to be on our side -- gratefully lapped it up. Indeed, al Qaeda may have had a hand in it. But so too may have the other centers of power whose leaders may have felt threatened by Bhutto's plea for change: the intelligence services and the military.

Though she looked like a walking holy card, Bhutto was hardly a saint. Said to have presided over something of a kleptocracy during her two terms as prime minister, Bhutto also, for all her railing against the mullahs, cut her deals with the religious parties and supported the Taliban's rise to power in neighboring Afghanistan. Later, once she was out of office, she condemned the role of Pakistan's intelligence services in the spread of Islamist terrorism and sentiment. But during her tenure, she embraced the Taliban as the best hope of stabilizing Afghanistan and ending the Afghan civil war. During Bhutto's second term, Pakistan was one of only three nations in the world to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. (When the Clinton administration appeared to be poised to do the same, U.S. feminists, lead by Eleanor Smeal, launched a campaign that derailed the Taliban's hope for normalized U.S. relations.)

Bhutto also failed to loosen the grip of the infamous Hudood ordinances, said by their proponents to be a form of Islamic law, on the lives of Pakistan's women. (The Hudood were introduced by the dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the general who deposed Bhutto's father, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in a 1977 coup d'etat, and later hanged him.) In fairness to her, had Benzair Bhutto tried to repeal the ordinances, she surely would have faced daunting opposition from the religious parties. Yet her strongest statements against practices such as the stoning of rape victims for the "crime" of zina (sex outside of marriage) were made after she left office.

Bhutto was also dogged by dark rumors surrounding the murder of her estranged brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto. Last month, her brother's daughter, Fatima Bhutto, published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that all but accused Benazir Bhutto of ordering the killing Mir Murtaza.

Still, neither Benazir Bhutto's shortcomings, nor the alleged evil deeds ascribed to her, diminish the tragedy of her killing. For the women of South Asia, it is a tragedy that extends beyond Bhutto's family and her country. However disappointing her lack of action on behalf of Pakistan's women, Bhutto was a potent symbol of their potential empowerment. Symbolism was what Bhutto did best, and symbols matter -- especially to the desperate.

When I visited Islamabad in 1998, I recall writing to friends about the lack of women in public spaces. The literacy rate among Pakistani women is 36 percent. (The rate among men is 60 percent, marking one of the world's widest gender gaps in literacy.) Maternal mortality is high, with 80 percent of babies delivered at home without a trained birth attendant, according the Pakistan Red Crescent. And despite recent reforms to the Hudood ordinances, Pakistan's sharia law is still stacked against women who find themselves abused by family members. So-called honor killings of women still take place, often without consequence to the murderers.

Time will tell whether Bhutto the icon comes to represent great courage or foolhardiness. She certainly was brave, and in both a physical and metaphysical sense. Some suggest it was a bravery born of arrogance; that she believed she had been chosen for greatness. Had she been a man, that belief, taken in combination with her physical risk-taking, would be attributed not to arrogance, but to having a sense of destiny, a calling.

She surely knew the risks. In their obituary of the Muslim world's first great modern woman leader, the New York Times' Jane Perlez and Victoria Burnett write, "Ms. Bhutto often spoke of how her father encouraged her to study the lives of legendary female leaders, including Indira Gandhi and Joan of Arc..."

In her willingness to meet a violent death, Bhutto may give courage to other women, and convince them that it's worth risking their lives for the sake of future generations. Or another message may be taken by Pakistan's women: beware the generals and mullahs -- not to mention villagers with stones in their pockets.

You may also like