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Pakistan's Bhutto Finds Kindred Spirit in Mrs. Clinton : Asia: The two, alumnae of Harvard and Yale, share views on role of women and the hazards of political prominence.

March 27, 1995|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The venue Sunday was Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's sprawling hilltop mansion, the guest of honor First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the topic the position of women in the world.

"I know that much remains to be done in every society, in both of our countries, to ensure that women assume their rightful place and are given the opportunities to exercise their rights, but I am very optimistic (about) what I see happening in the world," Mrs. Clinton said at the luncheon.

On the first full day of her five-nation trip across the subcontinent--a 12-day voyage that will focus on the status of women and children in the vast, largely impoverished region--Mrs. Clinton met with some of the female movers and shakers in Pakistani society: politicians, doctors, entrepreneurs and judges.

And for the first time, she made the acquaintance of the Harvard-educated Bhutto, who, to laughter from the guests, said she was honored to greet a "daughter of Yale."

Obviously sensing a kindred spirit in the Yale Law School alumna, the prime minister praised the wife of President Clinton as "both tough and a great leader."

"Women who take on tough issues and stake out new territory are often on the receiving end of ignorance. I can personally attest to that," Bhutto said.

Once the darling of Pakistanis who saw her as the best hope for democracy and social justice after decades of military rule, Bhutto, 41, now faces a strident political opposition and criticism from some supporters that she has failed to check violence, terrorism and widespread corruption.

At the luncheon, she ticked off a list of her government's efforts in its "frontal assault on the institutional discrimination against women in our society." They included reserving 10% of the jobs in the federal bureaucracy for women, a bank run by women for women, special women's police stations and plans to train 100,000 female health care workers.

But many women's activists say Bhutto has done little since her election victory in October, 1993, to better the lot of most female citizens of a male-dominated country where the strains of Islamic traditionalism and feudalism run deep.

It is a critique Mrs. Clinton will no doubt hear again on her travels through South Asia, despite the fact that three of the five countries she will visit--Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka--are headed by women, all of whom are the daughters or widows of former rulers.

"Having a female prime minister may give the impression that progress is being made here," said Mehnaz Raffi, who chairs Pakistan's Women's Rights Commission and is an unabashed Bhutto critic, "but at the grass-roots level, nothing has really changed. The condition of women is the same, whether there is a man or a woman at the helm."

In Pakistan, only 20 women in 100 can read and write, and the average woman has had 0.7 years of schooling. In India, 39% of the women are literate, but two of every three people who cannot read are women.

The South Asian trip consolidates Mrs. Clinton's new role as a global advocate on women's and children's issues, which present less of a political minefield than her controversial efforts toward health care reform last year.

Earlier this month, the First Lady appeared at a poverty summit in Copenhagen and a women's conference at the United Nations. At the luncheon in Islamabad, she told the guests, "As we invest in women and girls, we invest in men, we invest in the future, we invest in our society." Although well-to-do families in Pakistan and other countries of the subcontinent would concur, equal treatment for daughters is the exception rather than the rule.

"Boys are looked at as breadwinners, but girls aren't. Education, spending on the doctor, everything first goes to boys, and then to girls," said Noor Jehan Panezai, the first woman elected to Pakistan's Senate.

Throughout the region, non-governmental organizations are working to better the lives and prospects of women and children. Mrs. Clinton plans to view a broad sample of the groups' efforts, including a women's school in Islamabad, an orphanage run by Mother Teresa's nuns in New Delhi, a women's trade union in Ahmedabad, India's textile capital, and a bank in Bangladesh that lends money to village women.

In Pakistan, Administration officials said Mrs. Clinton also will be seeking to demonstrate respect for Islam and make it clear that Americans do not equate the Muslim faith with extremism or terrorism.

Accompanied by her 15-year-old daughter, Chelsea, the First Lady spent 35 minutes after lunch touring Islamabad's white marble Faisal Mosque, whose immense prayer chamber, designed to resemble a desert tent, rises more than 130 feet in the air.

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