Thursday June 13, 2024

Shaheed Benazir Bhutto: A champion of women’s rights

By Fatima Shaheen Niazi
June 22, 2021

The representatives of countries worldwide broke into a round of applause as Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, took the rostrum at the United Nations Fourth World Conference, held in Beijing.

It was the year 1995, and Pakistani women were still entangled in the clutches of patriarchy. Dressed in her signature Shalwar Kameez and white Dupatta, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto stood tall at the podium as she addressed some of the most influential leaders of the world.

She spoke with authority, and her words depicted the empathy she felt for women across the globe. "As the first woman ever elected to head an Islamic nation, I feel a special responsibility towards all women," she stated. Today, this statement defines Benazir Bhutto and the struggle she led to ensure women's empowerment in Pakistan.

Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, hailing from the Pakistan People’s Party, was a lady much ahead of her time. She was a woman of substance - an idol for women who could only dream of empowerment.

In a country where most females were not allowed to leave the house, Bhutto propagated the need for women to be employed. When the social ill of dowry was a norm, Bhutto negated the practice and brought forward the rights of women in Islam. Before women had the confidence to object to the atrocities they faced in a male-dominated society, she believed the female gender deserved respect and equal opportunities. That's how strongly Benazir Bhutto believed in the rights of women.

Through the course of her life, Bhutto became a symbol of hope for women on a global scale. When she took office after Ziaul Haq's regime, she focused on undoing the damage he had done by creating laws suppressing women. In her speeches, she often encouraged women to study and work, and to a great degree, Benazir Bhutto hoped to change the way women were perceived in Pakistan.

After she took office in 1988, Bhutto established Women's Studies centres at five universities in Islamabad, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar, and Lahore. In the same year, the First Women Bank was established to cater to the financial needs of women. The bank later financed small-scale credit schemes for disadvantaged women.

During her first tenure, the late prime minister also reserved a 5 percent quota for women in public sector jobs to ensure employment opportunities were made available to women. While this percentage might not seem enough, we must remember that tiny drops of water form an ocean. An allotment of a job quota for women during that time has resulted in millions of Pakistani women being employed today. The leader also changed the land reforms sector in Sindh by giving ownership of agricultural land to landless women farmers.

In 1993, when Bhutto took office for the second time, she inaugurated the first women's police station and a Lady Health Workers Programme. Under her leadership, a ministry for women's affairs was formed, and a Working Women Hostel was created in Islamabad. Computer centres for women were also established to keep them updated with the latest technology.

Some other changes made by the first and sole female prime minister to grace Pakistan's political sphere include the formation of the Ministry of Women's Development and the appointment of women in the superior judiciary. These steps aimed to leave a long term impact by placing women in powerful and influential roles. Bhutto also launched several loan schemes for women entrepreneurs. While Benazir Bhutto accomplished plenty during her time in office, critics believe she could have done more. However, many fail to realise that Bhutto came to power after the dictatorial Zia regime had birthed a new era of Islamisation. At such a time, a country run by a woman was in itself a huge accomplishment. For what it's worth, Bhutto did contribute abundantly to the evolution of the status of women in Pakistan. After all, she was responsible for making public the controversial documents of the Zarri Sarfaraz Commission (1983-85) that revealed the discriminatory legislations imposed on women.

During her life, Bhutto's charisma, leadership skills, empathy, and intelligence were qualities that differentiated her from even the most powerful of men. It was not her gender that made her stand out from the rest, but her will to make a difference in the world. Due to her dedication to uplifting women's status in Pakistan, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto still is and will forever remain a flame of hope that will continue to burn in every Pakistani woman's heart.