In 1988, when Hilary Clinton was still just the wife of the governor of Arkansas, Benazir Bhutto became the first female prime minister in the Muslim world. She was just 35. Her election victory could not have come at a better time for this Muslim woman.
I was 21, returning home to my country of birth, Egypt, a newly minted feminist after six difficult years in Saudi Arabia where women couldn’t drive – let alone contemplate a career in politics.
How great it was to see a Muslim woman ruling a country. There was Bhutto making redundant all those arguments our clerics love to have over women – our bodies, our minds, our lives. Could a woman lead a country? Hell, yes, Bhutto’s victory yelled!
After Bhutto, we got Tansu Ciller in Turkey, Beghum Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh and President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia. But Bhutto was the first.
But then came the point where gender and politics had to separate. Yes, it was great to see a Muslim woman in power but her politics left quite a bit to be desired. Of course as a woman I expected her to do more for women in Pakistan than a male leader would. Unfair? Perhaps. Just ask Hilary Clinton.
But when it comes to Pakistan, as in many other Muslim countries, women face a host of travesties visited upon them by politicians for whom the easiest way to flex Muslim muscles is to figure out the most repressive way to treat women.
Take the Hudood Ordinances introduced in 1979 by General Zia ul-Haq, the head of the army who ousted and then executed Bhutto’s father. Those ordinances stipulated that women who are raped are charged with adultery and go to jail unless they can produce four witnesses to the assault. It wasn’t Benazir who took on that outrage, but ironically another military dictator and Pakistan’s current president Pervez Musharraf, who signed into law last December an amendment to the controversial rape statute to make it easier to prosecute sexual assault cases.
And there’s no escaping Bhutto and her husband’s corruption charges, unforgivable anywhere but especially in such a poor country. But those charges were reminders of our paltry choice when it comes to political leadership in the Muslim world – the military dictator, his radical Islamist opponents or corrupt opposition leaders.
So it was with a skeptical eye that so many of us watched Bhutto return home. But that initial thrill of seeing the Muslim world’s first woman leader hadn’t completely faded. That was what made her assassination such a blow.
I wrote an op-ed last night expressing my ambivalence over Bhutto, and many Muslim female friends have shared theirs already.
“Although I didn't agree with her politics always, she was one of my role models,” a Dutch-Turkish friend and a successful media executive wrote to me. “Every woman in a leading position makes me strong.”
An American Muslim who is a writer friend told me: “I cried when I heard the news and I was shocked by own reaction thinking I was numb to this kind of news. But Bhutto is different, a leader Muslim woman in the Muslim world, and I think that is what I was grieving for.”
“I kept asking myself all day, ‘Is it really worth it to die to promote changes in the Muslim world in this day and age?’ I kept asking myself looking at my own two sons...if I die for something similar, is it really worth it? I am still thinking,” she said.
The best way to honor our thrill of watching a Muslim woman become leader is to support those who embody such liberal ideals. In Pakistan today, where you can take your pick between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, such ideals are under house arrest and in the country’s jails.
They are embodied by Iftikhar Chaudhry, chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, who has been under house arrest since November 3rd. Musharraf imprisoned dozens of judges and lawyers when he declared Emergency Law in late October because they represent a potent liberal opposition that is not tainted by corruption charges and do not have an Islamist bogeyman among them to obligingly frighten his western allies, who seem to believe he really is leading the War on Terror.
Chaudhry and the lawyers are Pakistan’s best hope. Pakistan needs them, as does a Muslim world hungry for a different kind of leadership – one that Bhutto seemed to represent in those early days of promise.
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