The Corner

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Re: Not a Harvard Feminist


It is nice to see that Benazir was pro-life. I am happy enough to believe that, and not to suggest, cynically, that, as a woman heading a conservative Muslim country she had to steer a very fine line on social matters.

The problem with Benazir, in life, was that, while she actually did manage to get elected, twice, to the highest office in her nation, she did not do very much good for anyone, anywhere, in that critical, frontline state, which also is a fairly benighted, corrupt, unjust nation. Even considering that her rule was somewhat circumscribed by the military, which she could not really flout on certain matters,(most non-domestic), she failed miserably in the very much needed feminist part of the above description.

Are women in Pakistan any better off than they were before she held office twice? Do they have more legal rights? More freedom? More economic power? How much higher is the female literacy rate than it was before her first, or second term? (Has it broken 15%?) Did she push social customs to change in any way that would allow a girl from a non-feudal background to rise to any serious position of power in the nation? Or just become a self-supporting worker?

The answers boil down to no, and not much, applied throughout. The exception being that, under Musharaff, last year, for the first time ever, the horrific Hudood laws were overturned, so that rape victims are not subject to the barbarities of sharia law, and automatically punished for their victimhood. That would have been a signal accomplishment for Benazir, who did not attempt it.

Of course you could ask the same questions about how much better off the average man was, under her leadership, and get similar answers.

Women from Benazir’s feudal class have not had problems holding high office in the past few decades. Both in her party and Sharif’s there are several highly accomplished female leaders who were elected to the national parliament from their family seats. There have been a couple of brilliant, widely celebrated female newspaper editors. All have first rate British educations, which have made them especially impressive when they have served in places like Washington as ambassadors of the nation. Without in any way demeaning their individual accomplishments, as far as the society of 160 million people goes, it amounts to window dressing.

Feminism, for all its latter day foolishness in places like the U.S., is a much needed adjunct to the very concept of human rights in Pakistan and a handful of (Islamic) countries about which we spill much ink these days. In this, as in a great deal of other policy areas where her people really did need reform, all Benazir offered was the brilliant, dazzlingly articulate talk one expects of an Oxford Union president. Nothing she did in any way mitigated the fact that a handful (40, it was always said) of feudal families continue to control the vast percentage of economic resources and political power – though they often lose the latter to the army, which cleans up their messes and has been, heretofore, less corrupt, (and, sadly, less articulate.)

Her 19 year-old son, Billiwal Zardari, heir to the feudal legacy of two major Sindhi families, is not likely to do better.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: As multiple (Indian) readers have pointed out to me today, Rajiv Gandhi was actually killed by Tamil nationalists. His mother, Indira, was killed by Sikhs.