LAHORE, Pakistan, (AP) – To get a sense of what kind of legacy Benazir Bhutto, the Muslim world’s first female leader, left behind for the women of Pakistan, look no further than those who were contending for the top spot in the political party she led.
There was her son, her husband, and two of her top deputies — four people with one thing in common: They’re all men. The job eventually went to her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, with her husband acting as a regent for the time being.
From the day Bhutto came to power nearly two decades ago, many in the West eagerly cast her as an icon for Muslim women, a role she never shied away from playing. And now her slaying in a suicide attack last week is being mourned as a blow to women’s rights in Muslim societies.
“Young Muslim women around the world should not let this murder dissuade them from speaking out and claiming their rightful place as equals in society,” declared the American Islamic Congress shortly after her death.
While many Pakistani women laud that sentiment, they say it is based on an overly simplistic view of Bhutto, the scion of a powerful political dynasty, and the country she governed, which to this day remains far from equal.
Bhutto’s tenure as prime minister certainly helped open doors in Pakistan’s male-dominated society, they say. But it was also sullied by the allegations of corruption, dirty politics and unfulfilled promises that have dogged the rule of every Pakistani leader, male or female.
“Yes, of course there was some symbolism in having a women as prime minister,” said Aysha Iqbal, a 23-year-old business student in Lahore.
But “she was prime minister because her father was prime minister,” Iqbal continued.
To understand Bhutto’s rise, it must be seen within the prism of South Asia, a region that has had more women leaders than any other part of the world.
There’s been Indira Gandhi in India; Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratanga, in Sri Lanka; Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, and, of course, Bhutto, who twice served as Pakistan’s prime minister, between 1988-1990 and 1993-1996.
Every one of them rose to prominence after the death of a male relative — no coincidence in a corner of the world where family often dictates one’s occupation, be it as a street sweeper or a prime minister.
In Bhutto’s case, she took the leadership of the populist Pakistan People’s Party founded by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979 following a military coup. She then led the party to election victory.
“She was our heroine at the time,” said Zareen Ahmed, chief of the British Muslim Forum, whose family comes from Pakistan. “We all crowded around the television at our house here and we were all very proud of her. For young women like me, she gave us hope.”
Bhutto was young and glamorous, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford who could campaign through Karachi slums as confidently as she had graced the salons of London and New York.
And, early in her administration, there were advances for women in Pakistan.
“On the radio, she had given instructions that many of the women’s programs should be aired; on television, there were documentaries on women’s rights,” said Asma Jehangir, chairwoman of the nongovernment Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
“She gave women more access to at least lobby with decision-makers,” she said. “The only time I have been to the prime minister’s house or the presidency was when she was in power.”
But Bhutto also picked up all the baggage that came with running Pakistan, a largely impoverished land that was — and still is — in many parts near-feudal.
She became the center of a vast patronage system, dealing in political debts and working with a network of old-timers whose issues became her issues. Overshadowing everything was Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishment.
Women’s rights took a back seat, and Pakistan remained as corrupt as it had been under her predecessors, perhaps even more so. Her husband, whom she wed in a traditional marriage arranged by her mother, quickly earned the nickname “Mr. 10 Percent” for the tens of millions he is alleged to have taken in kickbacks.
“I think Western feminists want to view Bhutto and the other women leaders as pioneers,” said Muneeza Rashed, 38-year-old woman in Lahore.
“But they’re not. They’re more like throwbacks to the men who came before them. They practice the same kind of old-boy politics. Helping women is secondary for them,” she said.
Under Bhutto, most Pakistani women still lived the impoverished, home-bound lives they had lived before. Girls still went uneducated while their brothers were sent off to school. And those women who endured the tragedy of being raped still found themselves contending with laws that discriminated against the victims of sex crimes — laws that would only be changed years later by President Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 military coup.
“In many ways women benefited very little under her,” said Unaiza Malik, 64, who was born in Pakistan and now works with the Muslim Women’s Society in London.
“It’s only in death that she will become an icon — in some ways people will look at her accomplishments through rose-tinted glasses rather than remembering the corruption charges, her lack of achievements or how much she was manipulated by other people.”