When President Asif Zardari addressed the UN General Assembly a few months ago, he held aloft a picture of his slain wife as a testament to the price he and the Pakistani nation have paid in the war on terror. The political legacy of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has reverberated through this last year, playing no small role in the election of her party, and ultimately of her husband to the Presidency.For the women of Pakistan, however, the death of Benazir Bhutto has meant a crude and ruthless relegation to a forgotten recess of politics. While the new PPP government may well have been elected based on the legacy of an incredible woman, it has done scant little to honour it. Ministers have been appointed and recommendations duly rejected without the slightest concern for the forgotten and ignored constituency of Pakistani citizens. Honour killings, acid attacks and sexual assaults on women have increased rapidly and been summarily ignored by a government that was elected because of the woman who once led them.
One most recent example is the burgeoning controversy over recommendations made by the Council of Islamic Ideology to reform Pakistan’s inegalitarian divorce laws to bring them in accordance with Islamic principles. According to the Council’s report presented this past weekend to President Zardari, current law needs to be changed to require the registration of the first pronouncement of talaq (divorce) with following pronouncements only to be given effect if the former requirement is met.
The Council also recommends that women also be given the right to divorce by adding a clause to the nikahnama that would allow them to petition courts for divorce. The resultant divorce would automatically take effect within 90 days if the husband fails to oblige. In addition, the Council recommended, a man entering into marriage would be required to declare all his assets and financial liabilities as well as previous marriages.
The Council’s recommendations are hardly revolutionary, it’s not like it has taken the step of recommending that a husband repudiate polygamy (something suggested by the Islamic Institute of Britain in a recent report penned by Islamic scholars there) nor has it tried to give women the ability to divorce their husbands by making three verbal pronouncements as men are able to do. No, instead the Council has recommended to this government, one elected on the basis of a woman’s legacy, to give Pakistani women the ability to obtain a divorce under certain conditions — the basic right to decide her own destiny.
And yet this paltry revision, which would provide more in symbolism (let’s not forget our aging debilitated court system’s limited ability to actually deliver on legal reform), is too much for this government to support. Mere days since the recommendations were presented to President Zardari, widower of a woman who sacrificed her life for the nation, government ministers had declare their opposition to the proposed revisions.
It was no surprise that hard-line groups and clerics like Mufti Munibur Rehman decried the recommendations as soon as they were presented, the Mufti accusing the government of ‘creating a new sharia’.
What was surprising and heartrending, before even the first anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s death, was that the religious affairs minister, selected by a government elected on Bhutto’s political legacy, announced that “the government does not support the Council’s recommendations and they should be sent back for further review”.
Three hundred and thirty one days have passed since the death of Benazir Bhutto at the hands of a suicide bomber, and if anyone wondered how long it would take her heirs to forget her legacy, the answer is before us.
As a woman, Benazir Bhutto fought to make her place in the echelons of governance in a country where women are routinely treated like chattel. Yet in a despicable reversal, men who are active and quite literal participants in such denigration have been elevated to the highest ranks in the current Administration. Notable among them is the notorious Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, now minister of education, who ordered the ‘payment’ of five minor girls, aged 2-5, as compensation to settle a feud between two warring tribes. Proof of his involvement has been provided by the Women’s Action Forum, which has documentary evidence substantiating his role.
If the induction of Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani was not enough of a slap in the face of Pakistani women, the appointment of Israrullah Zehri as the minister for postal services adds further credence to the government’s abandonment of Bhutto’s legacy.
Zehri, as is now well known, defended the practice of burying women alive in the name of honour as a cultural value that deserves protection. These comments were made in public mere days after the grotesque incident, which implicated the brother of yet another sitting provincial minister from the PPP, Sadiq Umrani, who has also continued to retain the party membership.
It is to this cast of misogynistic, patriarchal and ruthless men that the legacy of a woman who fought and ultimately lost her life for this country has been entrusted. The future of the women and girls of Pakistan, who merely a year ago had hoped to see a woman at the helm of their country, has quite unceremoniously thus been reduced to a farce through this litany of failures: the appointment of men with an avowed disregard and even hatred for women and this resolute failure to support even the most meagre of changes that would promise uplift to Pakistan’s women.
On viewing the cabinet selected to uphold the legacy of a woman who by her very existence flouted patriarchy, Iqbal Haider, Co-Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, said, “Had Benazir Bhutto been alive, she would never have allowed this”.
What would Benazir Bhutto have done if she were alive today? At least with regard to women, it seems it’s a question that has never been asked by the very administration elected in her name.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at
Article reproduced by permission of the author and DT.