"Exhibiting You" - Story

Benazir Bhutto and Beyond

Contrasting Views on Women’s Political Participation in Pakistan

Submitted: 09/23/2008

Political instability has plagued Pakistan since it was founded in 1947, following independence from Britain and partition from India. In the ensuing years, many rulers have been deposed, exiled and murdered. The post-9/11 international War on Terror has also placed Pakistan in a precarious position, watched closely as both a breeding ground for terrorists and a valuable source of key intelligence information.

The past few years have been particularly turbulent. In 2007, the authoritarian government's increasing and rampant disregard for the law and abuses of power -- including the dismissal of independent judges -- led to growing civilian unrest and many calls for the country's coup-backed president, General Pervez Musharraf, to step down.

A Woman Prime Minister

Against the backdrop of this turbulent history, Benazir Bhutto rose to power in the late 1980s and 1990s, serving intermittently as Pakistan's first and only woman prime minister. In the wake of political scandals and numerous corruption charges, Bhutto went into exile in 1998. She returned for the first time in 2007 after reaching an amnesty agreement with President Musharraf.

On December 27, 2007, during the run-up to the January, 2008 elections -- in which she was the leading opposition party candidate -- Bhutto was assassinated following a speech at a rally in Rawalpindi. Her death threw the Pakistan People's Party into temporary disarray and led to a postponement of the elections. Anti-Musharraf parties won by wide margins in the subsequent contest held on February 18, 2008. In August, 2008, upon threat of impeachment, President Musharraf officially stepped down.

Two Contemporary Commentators

Did Benazir Bhutto serve the women of Pakistan? And has her presence inspired other Pakistani women to participate in the political process -- as voters and as candidates? Two intimate witnesses to Pakistani politics help us shed light on these questions and present diverging views on the promise and demise of Pakistani women's political participation.

Now in her late 60s, Masuma Hasan has been a civil servant for more than 40 years, serving in numerous administrations. Born shortly after Pakistan's independence, Masuma still remembers how the country's first democratic elections brought Benazir Bhutto's father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to power. For Hasan, Benazir Bhutto's legacy is important: "It makes a lot of difference if a woman is head of government. It always inspires women. There is a feeling of greater security somehow; there is a feeling that she will understand."

Fatima Bhutto, in her late 20s, is Benazir Bhutto's niece. She observes Pakistani politics through the eyes of a journalist, with the political legacy of her family in tow. Fatima's view is less sympathetic: "She was the only woman prime minister we've had and yet nothing substantial was done for women. The Hudood laws were kept in place. There was no significant or, really, any increases in how women's education was dealt with or how women's health care was programmed."

Hasan and Bhutto have different opinions about many other aspects of the political process, including the usefulness of Pakistan's reservation system, for example, which allocates one fifth of the seats in Parliament for women. Yet, both agree that their countrywomen are politically aware in general and that their participation as voters and advocates for democracy has been vigorous and vital.

Listen to podcasts of the full interviews with Masuma Hasan and Fatima Bhutto.


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