June 21

June 21, the sun brightens our skies longer

Democracy: is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

Feminism: The doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men. The advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.  The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Feminism at its core is about equality of men and women, not sameness. Feminism is not about hating men.

Although democracy and feminism are not as democratic and feminist as they should have been, but we still have something to celebrate because of the struggle of Benazir Bhutto. I often quote the fragments of her speech delivered at Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. In her speech she advocated Islam, women empowerment, and democracy. Let me quote some again to refresh our memories and celebrate her day of birth, because she still is alive for whatever she had contributed towards democracy ant women empowerment:

Empowerment is not only a right to have political freedom. Empowerment is the right to be independent; to be educated; to have choices in life. Empowerment is the right to have the opportunity to select a productive career; to own property; to participate in business; to flourish in the market place.

Muslim women have a special responsibility to help distinguish between Islamic teachings and social taboos spun by the traditions of a patriarchal society. This is a distinction that obscurantist would not like to see. For obscurantists believe in discrimination. Discrimination is the first step to dictatorship and the usurpation of power. In distinguishing between Islamic teachings and social taboos, we must remember that Islam forbids injustice; Injustice against people, against nations, against women.

It shuns race, colour, and gender as a basis of distinction amongst fellowmen. It enshrines piety as the sole criteria for judging humankind. It treats women as human beings in their own right, not as chattels. A woman can inherit, divorce, receive alimony and child custody. Women were intellectuals, poets, jurists and even took part in war. The Holy Book of the Muslims refers to the rule of a woman, the Queen of Sabah. The Holy Book alludes to her wisdom and to her country being a land of plenty. The Prophet Muhammad himself married a working woman Bibi Khadija.

Women are not only victims of physical abuse; women are victims of verbal abuse. Often men, in anger and frustration, indulge in the uncivilized behaviour of rude and vulgar language against women. Unfortunately, women at times also use vulgar language to denigrate another woman. The discrimination against women can only begin to erode when women are educated and women are employed.

When I was growing up, women were not educated. I was the first girl in my family to go to university and to go abroad for my studies. Now it has become the norm for girls to be educated at university and abroad when the families can afford it. I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime.

The end of the cold war should have ushered in peace and an era of progress of women. Regrettably, the proliferations of regional tensions and conflicts have belied our aspirations. As in the past, women and girls have again been the most direct victims of these conflicts—the most helpless, and thus the most abused. The use of rape as a weapon of war and an instrument of “ethnic cleansing” is as depraved as it is reprehensible. The unfolding of this saga in different parts of the world, including Jammu and Kashmir and Bosnia Herzegovina has shaken the conscience of the entire international community.

A woman proud of her cultural and religious heritage, a woman sensitive to the obstacles to justice and full participation that still stand before women in almost every society on earth. As the first woman ever elected to head an Islamic nation, I feel a special responsibility towards women’s issues and towards all women. And as a Muslim woman, I feel a special responsibility to counter the propaganda of a handful that Islam gives women a second class status.

There is a moral crisis in the world, a crisis of injustice and inaction, a crisis of silence and acquiescence. The crisis is caused by centuries and generations of oppression and repression. This conference, therefore, transcends politics and economics. We are dealing with a fundamental moral issue.We must shape a world free from exploitation and maltreatment of women. A world in which women have opportunities to rise to the highest level in politics, business, diplomacy, and other spheres of life. Where there are no battered women. Where honour and dignity is protected in war and conflict. Where we have economic freedom and independence. Where we are equal partners in peace and development. A world equally committed to economic development and political development. A world as committed to free markets as to women’s emancipation.

We must shape a world free from exploitation and maltreatment of women. A world in which women have opportunities to rise to the highest level in politics, business, diplomacy, and other spheres of life. Where there are no battered women. Where honour and dignity is protected in war and conflict. Where we have economic freedom and independence. Where we are equal partners in peace and development. A world equally committed to economic development and political development. 

And even as we catalogue, organize, and reach our goals, step by step by step, let us be ever vigilant. Repressive forces always will stand ready to exploit the moment and push us back into the past.

I have never claimed that Benazir Bhutto was perfect, no one is, but she still managed to offer the world an alternative model of feminism. And in her campaigns, she advocated new services for women and opposed sexual discrimination, though few measures were adopted under her government. If anyone personified the feminist and democratic struggle in Pakistan, it was Benazir Bhutto. She challenged tradition, patriarchal norms and defied cultural boundaries. She continues to reign on as the most influential Pakistani of our times, overshadowing sportspersons, politicians, generals and Islamist jihadists. She challenged terrorists publicly even when she knew that the price of that challenge could be her own life.

Benazir Bhutto was a zealous guardian of her father’s legacy, populist, appealing and glamorous face of Pakistan and a trailblazing feminist. She was a lighthouse for democracy in Pakistan: “Benazir Bhutto doesn’t cease to exist the moment she gets married. I am not giving myself away. I belong to myself and I always shall.”

In her famous speech Benazir Bhutto quoted the German writer, Goethe: Freedom has to be re-made and re-earned in every generation. We must do much more than decry the past. We must change the future.

Let me quote my own words again to conclude the article: the day lasts longer on June the 21st to celebrate the achievements of Benazir Bhutto for Democracy and Feminism.

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