Joan Smith: Bhutto was silenced for being visible and modern

Why the assassination shocks women most. By Joan Smith
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In the last couple of days, just about every woman I've spoken to has wanted to talk about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The calculated cruelty of the attack most of us believe Ms Bhutto was shot in a plot which also involved a suicide bomb, rather than some nonsense about her hitting her head on a sun roof still has the power to shock, even when reports of such attacks on civilians have become almost nightly occurrences.

Obviously Ms Bhutto's gender goes some way to explaining our anger and distress. She was an attractive woman, her white headscarf stubbornly refusing to stay in place, in a culture where most of her sex remain out of sight. To see her speaking at a rally of her Pakistan People's Party was to see a woman in a man's world, surrounded by excitable supporters whose wives, mothers and sisters never accompany them to political meetings. Most of the victims of the terrible suicide-bombing that greeted her return to Pakistan in October were men.

In that sense, and in several others, Ms Bhutto was a complex and disturbing figure, a modern woman who owed at least some of her popularity to the sub-continent's tradition of dynastic politics. In Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, tribe trumps gender, and the few women who get to the top in politics Benazir Bhutto, Indira and Sonia Gandhi, Begum Khaleda Zia are all blood or marriage relations of former prime ministers and presidents. Even before Thursday's assassination, the biographies of these formidable women were replete with tragedy: Ms Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged and two of her brothers died in suspicious circumstances; Begum Zia became prime minister of Bangladesh only after the murder of her husband, President Ziaur Rahman.

Political assassination has a long history in this part of the world, and Mrs Gandhi's murder more than 20 years ago was proof that women who achieve power in the sub-continent are treated as honorary men. Yet Ms Bhutto's assassination has a resonance that would have been absent if last week's victim had been another former prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. Neither of them has a great track record in office, dogged by allegations of corruption and a past willingness to appease Islamic extremists, but Ms Bhutto was in the process of remaking herself as an opponent of both the military dictatorship of President Musharraf and the right-wing religious parties that support the Taliban.

The latter point seems the most likely explanation, whether or not the security forces were culpable in providing her insufficient protection. It is no accident that women leaders are rare in the Muslim world, where a combination of discriminatory laws and patriarchal practices excludes the vast majority from political and economic power, as well as full access to public space. Systemic discrimination against women is holding back economic development across the Islamic world; last year, a UN report on the status of women in Arab countries concluded that their disempowerment is "a critical factor crippling the Arab nations' quest to return to the first rank of global leaders in commerce, learning and culture".

The report shied away from linking the low status of women with Islam, yet it is hard to think of a Muslim country where women participate fully in civil society. On almost all measures apart from the number of women councillors and MPs, which is the result of government-imposed quotas the situation in Pakistan is particularly dire, leading the Asian Development Bank to suggest that "poverty in Pakistan has a woman's face". So-called honour killings and barbaric punishments are rife, as is rape and domestic violence. More than 50 per cent of girls marry before the age of 18 or without giving consent, and there are only 64 literate women for every 100 literate men.

I'm not sure many of my friends who grieved for Ms Bhutto last week believed that she could solve these horrendous problems. The disparity between the handful of elite women in Pakistan and the mass of ordinary women is painful to behold. But she was an incredibly powerful symbol, defying the invisibility imposed on women across most of the Muslim world. For all her faults, Benazir Bhutto was educated, brave and modern. She represented the future, and that is why she has been silenced.