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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Benazir Bhutto - A Feminist?

I read an op-ed piece by Rafia Zakaria, (Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy) in the Daily Times today with a very tongue in cheek heading Feminism: Women on top.

I cannot say with any certainty whether this was the heading given by the copy editor at the Times or her original heading.

I do not wish to take an issue with BB's feminism agenda, if there was one. Beena Sarwar, Asma Gilani and others are better qualified to write about it. My beef is an unfair comparison of BB with Hilary Clinton: apples and oranges.

The similarity of the criticisms levelled at the late Benazir Bhutto during her political career and those faced by Hillary Clinton literally a world away also present some lessons in terms of the particular gender-biased challenges faced by female political actors

This is painting with too broad a stroke and an unfair narration of events. There are too many variables.

But first the similarities. Both of them belonged to a political gharana. One was born and the other one married into one. Both are/were intelligent, bright and somewhat attractive women. Both portrayed a disregard of their husband's frailties. IN BB's case far longer than Hilary's dealing with Bill's Monica indiscretion.

The differences are both stark and gross.

While Hilary is yet to be tested as a President, BB had two shots at power and even by charitable accounts she did not have any positive or lasting contributions. That she was vying for a third opportunity reflects in equal measure the paucity of formidable opposition to the occupying army in Pakistan, her greed for power at any cost, and the stupor of the public masses.

And the other dissimilarities are more stark. Where to begin? Nepotism, sycophancy, corruption, abuse of power, ethnic cleansing. What is worse, BB showed no remorse either in her writings or her speeches.

Must we denounce Hilary or Benazir because of their last names that could pave the otherwise rough road to political power?

No, that would be unfair and shallow to do. But, we should not shirk away from calling a spade a spade.

In the Chairperson for Life's case, she did eventually treat the PPP as a jaagir - a family heirloom. And for now she has succeeded in installing her son as the Chairperson - oh - as a Co-Chairperson till he is groomed and finishes his studies. I pity the young man whom fortune has thrust in unchartered waters.

And, she swam against the corruption charges levied at her and her husband Asif Zardari. Check here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. This reduces her incantations in speeches and in the election manifesto of the PPP to levels below a rodent's under belly. [an update: Chaudhry Aitezaz Ahsan wrote a clumn that appeared today in the daily times: in memoriam: Benazir Bhutto. I wish he would, someday, respond to the corruption charges against M/s Zardaris in the links provided above. And yes, this was a eulogy of sorts, but he cannot be blind to the obvious and his input would indeed be informed and useful.]

The search for a feminist leader must not be marred by a misguided search for perfection that blinds us to the courage and capabilities of real female leaders who have fought their way to the top.

I agree with this in full with this caveat: this should only apply till such time in future where we have elevated ourselves to the level where in judging people we become oblivious of their gender.

Is a true feminist leader only one whose ascendance to power is in no way trammelled by the presence of a husband or a father?

While this is the main thrust of Rafia Zakaria's article, will only make the following comment in passing.

There is a large body of men out there who support women in their daily and worldwide struggle for gender equality, for gender neutral laws, for end to discriminatory practices in the work place, for end to domestic abuse, for not being victimised in honour killings, for equal dignity and respect in front of law, for equal pay for same work. They may not subscribe to the feminist agenda in full. Some men may not even understand it as well. But they do support equality with dignity for all human beings.

If you read her articles, study her speeches you would conclude that Benazir Bhutto did not believe in this and when she did speak up on the odd occasion it was to pay lip service only. If you study her deeds while in power she comes off worse.

Her last will and testament, as read by the Asif (Mr. 10%) Zardari in Naudero, and testified as to its accuracy by her sister Sanam Bhutto is a proof of her medieval and fedual mindset - do as I say, don't do as I do.


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