Pakistani women carry signs for a slain Bhutto.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female prime minister, was shot dead on Dec. 27, 2007, as she was leaving an election rally and seeking a return to power as the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

A year later, some of the mourning that remains goes beyond her to the overall predicament of women in the country that she left behind, which holds 127th place among 130 nations in a 2008 global ranking by the World Economic Forum of women’s social and economic status. The only countries ranked lower are Saudi Arabia, Chad and Yemen.

One prominent sign of women’s difficulties in Pakistan are the two ministerial appointments this year.

Her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, took her place in the party and eventually assumed the presidency. A few months after Bhutto’s killing, he appointed Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani–who served ministerial stints in Benazir Bhutto’s administrations–as education minister.

On the one hand, the powerful Oxford-educated Bijarani, in 2006, supported the modification of the Hudood Ordinance laws, which are modeled on Islamic Sharia and meted out harsh punishments on women in the name of God for extramarital sex, false accusation of extramarital sex, theft and drinking of alcohol.

Girls Under 5 Married Off

But, on the other hand, in 2007, the Supreme Court ordered Bijarani arrested for presiding over a tribal council–which serves as a local court–that handed over five girls, aged between 2 and 5, for marriage. They were compensation to settle a decade-old feud.

Somehow, however, Bijarani remained free.

“Instead of taking any action against Bijarani, the government has rewarded him with a ministry,” said Anis Haroon, a human rights activist who directs the Sindh office of the Islamabad-based Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights organization in Pakistan. “The laws of the land are not important to them.”

Bijarani’s appointment is “either for favors rendered or as investments to be used when necessary,” Ardeshir Cowasjee, a prominent newspaper columnist, said in a recent e-mail.

The second troubling ministerial story involves Mir Israr Ullah Zehri, a powerful tribal leader appointed as minister of postal services in November 2008 who has condoned a horrific crime against women.

In August 2008, in a remote village in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, five women were thrown into a pit and buried alive because three chose the men they would marry and the other two supported their decisions. The women’s bodies were later found half-eaten by animals. This story has been confirmed by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.

When Bibi Yasmin Shah, a female senator, raised the issue in parliament, Zehri said: “These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them . . . Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid.”

Ancient Power Structure

Although Pakistan’s parliament is made up of 22 percent women–a high figure by any global comparison–Cowasjee said the female representation doesn’t stand for much given the country’s ancient, male-dominated power structure.

Few female parliamentarians, he said, dare speak without the approval of a party chief. “Most of these women are unelected and are appointed by their parties to reserved seats for women . . . Those elected are few and far between. They are mostly relatives of the male parliamentarians; thus, they are obedient to their families.”

In that context, Sehba Sarwar, a novelist and activist from Pakistan currently based in Houston, said Bhutto’s death left little room for other women to assert themselves in the power vacuum that followed. “It would have been more meaningful had a factory worker achieved that as compared to a landlord’s daughter who also served in the government.”

Bhutto was a product of a political culture created by centuries of feudalism, in which landholding families such as hers that survived British rule continue to control between 70 and 80 percent of parliament. As landholders, they also control a significant part of the work force, 42 percent of which is concentrated in the agriculture sector.

Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, served as president from 1971 to 1973 and as prime minister from 1973 to 1977.

“Benazir was looked at as a leader who was a progeny of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,” said Maniza Naqvi, a Bhutto loyalist and a novelist who lives in Washington, D.C., and works for an international development agency. “Bhutto’s child would have been loved regardless. But as time went on, she came into her own as a leader. Not to forget, Benazir embodied the feminine spirit of the East.”

Fateful Match

Besides being a landlord’s daughter, Benazir–a Harvard and Oxford graduate–married a feudal lord, Ali Zardari, who does not have a bachelor’s degree but claims to have graduated from a college in London that does not exist.

Nicknamed “Mr. Ten Percent” for the amount he was rumored to take as the middleman in deals with the Bhutto government, Asif Zardari spent eight years in prison on corruption charges.

“I can still not understand why she married him,” said Tahira Naqvi, a professor of Urdu at a private university in New York City and a longtime supporter of Benazir Bhutto. “That was one of her biggest mistakes which led to her government’s downfall.”

During both Bhutto’s terms as prime minister, Zardari was often the target of criticism because of a number of allegations of corruption and money laundering fueled by French, Polish, Spanish and Swiss documents.

Bhutto and Zardari were also accused of involvement in the assassination of Bhutto’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto, in 1996.

Benazir Bhutto’s government collapsed six weeks after Murtaza’s death. Eleven years later, it was her turn to be assassinated as she attempted to regain her power.

Sharmeen Gangat is a freelance writer based in New York. She received her master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York City. Prior to Columbia, she was a radio producer with United Nations Radio in New York.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].