Pakistani Women's Flawed Icon

As the first woman ever elected leader of a Muslim country, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto raised expectations for the advancement of women. But she struggled to overcome deep-rooted cultural obstacles, leaving some women's rights activists disappointed.
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 12, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Wrapped in tattered wool blankets, Bashiran and her neighbors trekked for three hours from their dusty rural villages to wait amid the polished offices and whirring computers in a bank here in Lahore, one of the many branches set up across Pakistan by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Looking down shyly at her modest cotton clothes and cracked plastic sandals, Bashiran, a 45-year-old mother of six, shuffled up to the teller's window for a $300 loan -- money that would allow her to pay for a donkey cart and rent it out to other poor women in her village. Her plan was working, she said, except for a haunting reality that made her feel sick to her stomach.

"I promised to give my husband and son the rupees, since they told me I had to," she said, as her friends gently touched her arm in empathy, adding that their male relatives had also demanded control over their loan money. "It's my duty. Life for women of Pakistan is not our own. The men are always the head of our bodies and hearts."

The scene playing out in the bank's lobby was a testament to the complex and often confounding legacy that Bhutto left Pakistan upon her recent death and to the ways Pakistani women remain subservient to their brothers and husbands, fathers and sons.

As the first woman elected leader of a Muslim country, Bhutto raised expectations for the advancement of women. But she struggled to overcome deep-rooted cultural obstacles; the institutions she created were enmeshed in problems of their own and have failed to free women from the bonds of tradition.

While Bhutto's assassination Dec. 27 has left many Pakistani women mourning, it has left others with a sense of disappointment.

"To me, Bhutto wasn't a feminist icon. She was just another corrupt Pakistani politician," said Chand Rahiem, 25, who sat with a group of female friends in a cafe. "Pakistan has no heroes or heroines. It just has a very complex and troubled history -- and now a very confusing and unclear future."

Bhutto's two turbulent terms as prime minister, from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996, were indeed stained by charges of mismanagement and graft. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is now running her Pakistan People's Party, was nicknamed "Mr. 10 Percent" for his alleged habit of accepting bribes.

Allegations of malfeasance extended to the women's bank that Bhutto helped create. In the 1990s, some of the bank's tellers were accused of conning illiterate women into signing for loans exceeding the amount they actually received. Some critics say the bank continues to take advantage of poor, vulnerable women, charging them exorbitant interest rates.

Bashiran, who said she signed loan papers without knowing what they said, was saddled with a whopping 16 percent rate.

Bhutto's supporters acknowledge her shortcomings but also point to what she was able to achieve.

"Despite her flaws, one impact she did have is that she started to talk about women's issues, things that no one thought could be talked about," said Asma Jahangir, a human rights advocate who has been both a critic and an admirer of Bhutto. "And Pakistanis began to see issues about the treatment of female servants or rape or bonded labor less as the ranting of obscure women's groups and more an important part of societal debate."

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