A woman mourns Bhutto on Jan. 1.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Benazir Bhutto led a life that lends itself to legend. She was born into politics, fame and intrigue. Now she has been assassinated on the eve of what most Pakistanis expected to be her triumphant return to power.

She leaves women, in particular, with a profound sense of loss. I admired her, too, but also thought she was the consummate politician more than a real champion for change, especially for women. Not to say the nation is left without female leaders; there are many. But Pakistan is now left without a female leader who can command nationwide and international attention.

In 1988, when Bhutto became the first democratically elected female head of a Muslim country at the age of 35, women’s rights campaigners cheered. She appointed the first female high court judge and instituted a women’s police force. But the well-spoken modern prime minister wound up besieged by political infighting and resistance from army and religious leaders, then was bounced out of office 20 months later on corruption charges that also swept up her husband. Bhutto returned to power in 1996 for a three-year term.

Then again she disappointed women’s rights activists.

As Bhutto planned her October 2007 return to Pakistan she seemed a changed woman, displaying a different view on the roles of the military and extremism in Pakistan, and the damaged they’d caused. Though she spoke little about women’s concerns her new outlook raised hopes among women that she would finally be able to rise above the fray and make changes.

Powerful Symbol for Women

While her assassination wasn’t completely unexpected, it does seem unfair for a woman and a country that has gone through so much in recent years. Bhutto, whatever her faults, was a powerful symbol in Pakistan, especially for women. Having extensively covered women’s issues from domestic abuse to maternal health to political representation during my time there from 2001 to 2004, I knew how hard it can be for Pakistani women to feel hopeful for the future. Bhutto’s public displays of strength as a politician, a mother and a wife had always given them an example of what their lives could be.

“Women have long paid the heaviest price for Pakistan’s problems,” says Lahore-based social worker Humeira Quereshi, who often criticized Bhutto over women’s issues. “Women’s issues are simply not viewed as a priority and getting action is extremely difficult at the best of times.”

As the news broke I e-mailed my editors and picked up the telephone to reach out to sources, in-laws and friends in Pakistan to gauge their reactions and ask them for predictions. The overwhelming welcome Pakistanis displayed for this often skeptical, questioning American reporter won the nation my respect and admiration.

Juliette Terzieff

The responses I heard were almost universal from both Bhutto’s staunchest supporters and her critics: absolute dismay.

“As a woman this is a loss which cannot be compensated,” the prominent activist and Bhutto supporter Shahnaz Bokhari told me in a phone call shortly after the Dec. 27 assassination. “She was our hope for a liberal, democratic Pakistan, our one bright spot in an otherwise suffocating atmosphere of control.”

Bokhari, who is well known in Europe and the United States as a firebrand campaigner for women’s rights, heads the Islamabad-based advocacy group Progressive Women’s Association, which among other things shelters victims of interpersonal violence.

During my time in Pakistan, we regularly discussed the situation for women. But now the usually optimistic and stalwart Bokhari seemed full of despair.

Bleak Life for Many

Life for most in Pakistan is difficult.

For decades the country has withstood multiple military coups, dictatorial leaders, troubled relationships with neighboring Afghanistan and an arms race with India, with whom it had once been united under British rule.

The instability has contributed to grinding poverty, food insecurity and widespread illiteracy that affect tens of millions in the nation of 149 million.

That is particularly true of Pakistan’s women, who contend with an array of special burdens from widespread domestic abuse and societal discrimination to paltry political representation.

Current President Pervez Musharraf instituted gender quotas in 2002 of 33 percent women in local government and 17 percent at the provincial and federal levels. While the requirements have been met, most women placed into the slots have no real experience in the male-dominated corridors of power and are further hindered by the party agendas of their male leaders.

These recent poll gains, however, cannot be expected to evaporate the institutional discrimination against women. Unknown thousands of Pakistani girls and young women are bartered away from their families in the centuries’ old practice of “vinni,” in which the giving of women for marriage may be used as compensation in cases of murder, territorial disputes or other serious disagreements.

Following a 1979 presidential decree by General Zia ul Haq, Pakistanis were subjected to the Hudood Ordinances, a mix of Islamic decrees and secular laws applying to a variety of crimes. In the case of rape, the ordinances require four male witnesses to disprove adultery. As such, they were routinely used to convict rape survivors despite prolonged outcries from women’s rights campaigners and the international community.

In late 2006 Musharraf signed the Women’s Protection Bill that eliminates the death penalty for sex outside marriage and allows for rape cases to be tried as criminal offenses under the penal code.

It was intended to be a first step toward liberalization and was passed only after vicious political battles.

Paying Lip Service

Virtually every politician to enter Pakistan’s topsy-turvy political scene in the last two decades has paid lip service to improving the situation for women thanks to the unyielding pressure applied by women’s rights activists.

Some politicians, including Musharraf and Bhutto, followed their words with limited action, but larger political concerns have repeatedly trumped efforts to improve the legal and civic status of women.

Today as they look over their own ranks, many women’s rights activists sadly acknowledge that there is no one to fill the political shoes that Bhutto leaves empty. At least for now, even though the country has a roster of stellar activists.

Bokhari, a Women’s eNews 21 Leader for the 21st Century 2004, is one. Another is Asma Jehangir, the widely respected founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the United Nations special rapporteur on religious freedom.

There’s also Tamina Doltana, who in 2002 emerged as one of only two women to win a parliamentary seat in a direct contest with a male competitor.

Hina Jilani, a lawyer, human rights activist and special U.N. representative for human rights defenders, formed Pakistan’s first all-woman legal office with her sister Asma Jehangir in 1980.

Majida Rizvi, the country’s first female high court judge, has since her retirement been the chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women and writes articles for university, legal and general audience newspapers on women’s rights.

But none has anything like the following of Bhutto.

“Only a fool would say Bhutto was a female campaigner without flaws. Too often she failed to address women’s concerns,” says Lahore’s Quereshi. “Nonetheless she was a symbol of possibilities, a rallying point for Pakistani women and there is simply no other with her stature.”

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Tampa, Fla., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.

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