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Bhutto blazed trail few can follow

Some worry Pakistan's repressed women face more peril than ever.

January 20, 2008|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

LAHORE, PAKISTAN — Squeezed into segregated public buses with scant seats reserved for women, schoolteacher Suneela Mohsin thinks of Benazir Bhutto. She thinks of the slain leader when she walks crowded streets, forbidden to talk to strange men in public or even make eye contact in this society dominated by men.

"Our culture offers women very little public space," she said, wearing a deep maroon dupatta, the traditional shawl-like covering, around her head and body. "Benazir was our last hope of change. But now she's gone."

For women such as Mohsin, Pakistan is a land of bitter contradictions. Entrenched tribal and religious taboos subject women to what human rights groups call some of the cruelest repression in the world. But the country also elected Bhutto, the first female prime minister of a Muslim nation.

Bhutto's assassination last month has led many here to reassess her contribution to women's rights in her homeland: Was she merely an iconic figurehead, or did she bring real change through her actions and public policies?

Lawyer Asma Jahangir, Pakistan's leading human rights advocate, said Bhutto did more for women than any other Pakistani leader, including appointing female judges and establishing a commission for women's rights.

"She opened the dialogue of women's rights in Pakistan," Jahangir said. "She did more than talk, she walked the walk. We just expected her to walk more."

In Pakistan, seven of 10 women can't read, one of the highest illiteracy rates in South Asia. So-called honor killings, gang rape and sexual attacks are frequent, but those who report assaults are more likely to go to prison than see justice.

Critics say Bhutto was a flawed leader whose two terms as prime minister were ineffectual. She wasted an opportunity, they say, to repeal draconian ordinances enacted in 1979 by President Zia ul-Haq, the man who ousted her father from power and then had him executed. The ordinances, part of his radical efforts toward "Islamization," mandated harsh punishments, including death, for extramarital sex.

"She didn't make any breakthroughs to counter brutish behavior; her changes were cosmetic," said Farzana Bari, director of the Center of Excellence in Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the capital.

"We had such high hopes for her as a woman representing a liberal party in Pakistan, that she could bring about real change for women here. Of course, she didn't do it."

Bhutto's supporters say she brought progress for women in other ways, including the creation of the first bank run by women, healthcare programs and female-staffed police stations.

"Her record on women's rights may not seem great, but she was leader of all people, and felt she couldn't afford to exclusively promote women and alienate men," said Saba Gul Khattak, a fellow at Pakistan's Sustainable Development Policy Institute. "She had to tread a path somewhere in between. That's the reality of politics."

Bhutto held her ground on women's rights while under attack from tribal warlords and conservative mullahs.

"Women didn't take a step backward under Benazir. She didn't allow any new negative polices to be enacted," said Neelam Hussain, a member of the Women's Action Forum, an Islamabad-based political action group.

But in Pakistan, where women account for 49% of the 160-million population, many are entering workplaces that offer them little equality and few opportunities for advancement. In many companies, women are paid less and handed support jobs.

In many schools, for example, women are not allowed to teach male students once they reach a certain age. The thinking: Boys need the firm hand of a man for guidance and discipline.

Barriers for women aren't just in the workplace. They hit home as well.

"I may have more rights than my mother did, but I still can't go out alone after 8 p.m., I can't have boyfriends, and I won't marry for love -- my wedding will be arranged," Mariam Hubib lamented as she walked across the campus of the elite Kinnaird College here.

Hubib, 20, is a linguistics major who has hopes of entering the job market when she graduates. But there's one problem: Her parents won't let her.

"It's still not considered good for women to work," she said with a sigh. "My family is conservative. I don't know what I'll do with my education. I guess just wait around for my husband to arrive."

She aches to become an independent woman like Benazir Bhutto. "She spoke out even though she knew she was in danger. How can I even think of becoming like her? My father won't let me."

Other women say Bhutto's presence alone challenged traditional male attitudes.

"There were those who said it was un-Islamic to have a woman leader, that any country with a woman leader was going to hell," said Saadia Toor, a sociologist at the College of Staten Island who specializes in Pakistan. "It was incredibly difficult to lead a nation when this is the level of things that were thrown at you."

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