ISLAMABAD -- The woman behind the desk in Islamabad's best hotel was in tears. She had just been suspended for 10 days for shaking hands with a man. "I am being punished for doing my job," she complained. "To be a woman in Pakistan is a terrible thing."

Indeed. Pakistan's 50 million women are trapped in a patriarchal society, victimized by a complex web of social, religious and legal forces that deprive them of their basic human rights. "I wouldn't want to be a horse, a dog or a woman in Pakistan," said one Western diplomat there recently. Or a prime minister for that matter.

When Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's recently ousted prime minister, swept into office in December 1988 as a champion of democracy and reform, it looked as though women in Pakistan finally would move out of the dark ages. But in spite of her high profile as the only woman to lead a Muslim nation in modern times, Bhutto ventured little and gained even less on behalf of her country's women before she was abruptly dismissed by presidential decree earlier this month on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

The continuing plight of Pakistan's women is vividly illustrated by these accounts, as reported in the Pakistani media: A woman and her two daughters are stripped naked and beaten in public in the town of Macharwali in the Punjab, and the two girls are gang-raped. Police refuse to register a case against the assailants. Two young sisters, seriously ill, are taken to a hospital. The diagnosis: an infection of the bones caused by a lack of sunlight. The girls have not been allowed to set foot out of their father's house for years. There is no prosecution. A 13-year-old girl is abducted and raped by a "family friend." Her father files charges, but the girl -- not the rapist -- is incarcerated. Faced with the prospect of years of expensive litigation, the father ends up bribing the police to drop the charges. The girl is beaten by her uncle and elder brother and made to apologize to the entire family for disgracing them.

The U.S. Department of State's most recent human-rights report for Pakistan expresses concern over a disturbing increase in the number of newlywed wives being burned to death in kitchen accidents. Many of these deaths are believed to be murders perpetrated by husbands who are dissatisfied with the size of their wives' dowries. The report concludes that "few such cases are seriously investigated . . . ." While Pakistani women are likely to find their freedoms even further restricted under a successor regime, other female politicians and activists were outspoken in their criticism of Bhutto while she was in office. "Benazir Bhutto has not demonstrated a commitment to anything other than her own desire to wield power," said Syeda Amina Hussain, the first woman elected to the National Assembly in 1985 and a bitter critic of Bhutto.

Tehmina Ahmed is a dedicated women's activist and an editor of Newsline, a national newsweekly magazine staffed primarily by wo-men. A few months ago she criticized Bhutto for adopting "a permanent wait and see attitude" on women's issues. "In politics, there has to be some risk-taking somewhere."

The ancient tribal customs and feudal traditions that place women at such disadvantage in Pakistan predate the country's creation as an independent Islamic state in 1947. Baluch and Pathan women in the western provinces live according to strict tribal codes that give them no say in their lives, including marriage. They are literally invisible after the onset of puberty, sequestered behind their veils and the four walls of their homes. Any violation of tribal codes -- a conversation between a man and a woman who are neither engaged nor married, for instance -- is punishable by death.

In the more developed provinces, women often toil in the fields or factories out of economic necessity. But their lives are still severely constrained by rigid tradition, including a dowry system that frequently impoverishes the bride's family and makes daughters an unwanted burden. And while there are successful professional females in Pakistan's urban centers, even their economic and legal rights are seriously abridged.

Women's rights expanded in the early years of the republic, but the advent of martial law under Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in 1977 slammed shut a door that had just barely been opened. Under Zia's cynical brand of conservative Islamic demagoguery, the lot of women in Pakistan went from bad to worse.

The most egregious example is the Hudood Ordinance, which Zia enacted in 1979 to cover such offenses as adultery, fornication, rape and prostitution. In practice, the law protects rapists, prevents women from testifying on their own behalf and confuses the issues of rape, adultery and fornication. Because the law values the testimony of men over that of women, a woman who complains of rape frequently is prosecuted for adultery while the rapist goes free. Pregnancy in the absence of marriage is prima facie evidence of adultery, not rape. Punishments under the ordinance can include death by stoning and public whippings of up to a hundred lashes.

But perhaps the most insidious effect of Hudood has been to make notoriously corrupt local police forces the guardians of morality. These all-male bastions frequently use Hudood to harass innocent parties on the basis of personal and political animosities. Women have suffered grievously. When the ordinance was enacted there were only 70 women in prison in Pakistan. Today, more than 3,000 women are incarcerated, most of them charged under Hudood. Upon coming to power in 1988, Bhutto pledged to get rid of laws discriminating against women as soon as possible. In fact, Bhutto's legislative record on this, and virtually every other matter, was nil. Her determination to keep conservative interpreters of Islam at bay, especially the Jamaat Islami, an extreme right wing political party, forced Bhutto to postpone action on the women's agenda. Although the Jamaat Islami has never fared well at the polls, its ability to energize parliamentary opposition and foment unrest in the streets of Pakistan is considerable. Earlier this summer, fundamentalist forces in parliament embarrassed Bhutto by proposing a measure reimposing radical Islamic law, including punitive amputations and a requirement that rape victims produce four male witnesses.

To a certain extent, Bhutto may have fallen victim to unrealistic expectations engendered by the Western media's image of her as a thoroughly modern woman. As she made clear in her autobiography, she is a daughter of the East. Harvard and Oxford are nothing in her life compared to the concrete realities of tradition and Islam in Pakistan. She acknowledged as much in agreeing to an arranged marriage with a man she had known for just seven days.

Bhutto's decision to wear the scarf traditionally draped over the head and upper body by Pakistani women, was viewed by many as symbolic of a disappointing willingness to compromise with right-wing religious forces. In Tehmina Ahmed's view, Bhutto was "projecting a false image." Said Ahmed, "If that is what it takes for a woman in Pakistan to strike an attitude of respectability, what does the future hold for us?"

But Amina Piracha, a female member of the National Assembly and hard-core Bhutto supporter, felt that "there has been progress for women under {Bhutto}. Under Zia it was nothing for someone to come up to you in the street and slap you in the face because you were not wearing the dupatta. Today, I am not afraid of being assaulted because my head is uncovered."

There were some other improvements under Bhutto. Pakistani women once again competed in international sports events, something banned under martial law. A cabinet-level office for women's development was created, and a number of women were appointed to senior positions within the government and diplomatic service. Women in prison have enjoyed somewhat better access to legal advice and representation.

But on the critical issue of Hudood, there was no progress. No doubt that was due in large part to Bhutto's distraction by other matters -- an endless holy war in Afghanistan, a dispute with India in Kashmir that has nuclear potential, sectarian violence in Sind province. And persistent rumors of widespread corruption within her administration and within her husband's family eroded her once formidable support among the people of Pakistan. "We thought we elected a Cory," said one disaffected member of the National Assembly, "but it looks like we got Imelda instead."

Kurt Schork is a freelance journalist in the Far East.