Published in Dawn (Jan 17, 2008) as A Contested Legacy
As the elegies to Benazir Bhutto pour in, one can tell from the tone of the requiems how debatable her legacy and memory will remain in the public imagination. In life she continued to be a deeply conflicted personality, straddling the liberal progressive and the deeply feudal worlds without a murmur of a conflict of interest. She challenged stereotypes of what ‘good’ Pakistani women of her class and generation could do and contested the public/private space divide but kowtowed to the constant personal theatre of the dupatta and the prayer beads. In death she ever becomes the elusive Salome of the seven veils in our popular imagination, with her obituaries giving tantalizing hints to was her real self. From a flighty young woman who consumes paperback romances and speeds past us in her yellow MG searching for the closest Baskin Robbins she turns into a thorn in the side of a military dictator, a serious foe indulging in a decade long struggle to keep her father’s name and political legacy alive. She is at times the workaholic campaigning long hours through pregnancies, a diligent politician surviving on four hour’s sleep and then a much-maligned name with corruption and nepotism cases brought up against her and her coterie. Every day the international press busies itself bringing in a whiff of intrigue and scandal, tears and laughter to the tale.
She came in at a time when the Pakistani military high command held control on women’s mobility, their choices, and legal freedoms. This ranged from the repressive laws passed by their regimes to the ‘instructions’ given from time to time by the military elite (as compared to now when they gloat over how they have singlehandedly ‘empowered women’ through the Women’s Protection Bill blatantly ignoring the long years of struggle, protest and lobbying that women group’s in Pakistan went through. And now their attempts to stay in power has impeded the mobility, physical and otherwise, of so many women working for civil liberties in Pakistan). So even with Zia dead and buried the life worlds and images of the ‘immoral’ and ‘good’ women remained in public perception. The Jamat-i-Islami then explained their verbal gymnastics, (of Fatima Jinnah yes, Benazir Bhutto no) as the need of the (then) times “based on time-bound temporary needs and involuntary conditions...that they accepted (Fatima Jinnah) under the demand of collective need and as an ‘acceptable evil’. And while none of us went as far ahead as buying a gun ala the later Maulvi Sarwar and the unfortunate Zille Huma, didn’t we all contribute to the evil by allowing our clerics, friends and family to question whether Islam allowed Benazir Bhutto to be the head of state? Didn’t we all keep a close eye on her hairline and whether her dupatta slipped off or not?
So Benazir too redefined herself with her “dramatic entry into motherhood” as Sohail Inayutullah puts it. For as Inayutullah explains as a single woman Bhutto would always be situated by the critics in the land of female archetypes, that of the Amazon or hero, and later as the daughter of a Great Man, her father Zulfiqar Bhutto. It was as a mother that she finally found political success, for this because in a nation afraid of female sexuality, of sexuality as such, an Amazon could never last.
And now with her contested legacy and the unexpected “political will” it is as quite possible that she is reduced to the mother-figure who has encouraged a new chapter of dynastic politics. And is this how the Pakistani populace will be finally comfortable with her legacy? A brave mother who lays down her life trying to bring democracy to her electorate family and offers her first-born to carry on? A dutiful daughter who only stepped out of home to avenge her father’s death?
There is many a ubiquitous query regarding what her assassination means for young Pakistani women trying to access the political arena. But in the seeds of this question and the guiding spirit of her political will lies a political commentary of the state of affairs for the Pakistani citizen in 2008. In Pakistan today—and the way our society functions who can survive, irrespective of gender and generation, as an individual? Is the political field giving us the assurance that every individual can have an equal opportunity to excel? There is something twisted about the whole structure that prejudices against young, energetic political aspirants and more important individuals who have “unblemished” personal histories where financial and public conduct is concerned. What has happened to the populist People’s Party that it has set to create a dichotomy of an “elite” groomed to lead and those that do not have the birth right to have such aspirations? This is something that cuts across gender lines and one has to realise this before evaluating the state of (women) affairs in our country in the days after Bhutto.
It is about time that we petition of our political parties to respect and acknowledge capable individuals who want to bring about change. It is about time that they assure and respect a process of accountability. And I ask this not of the PPP alone, there is a blatant disregard to a Pakistani citizen’s struggle for realization when it comes to the convoluted party politics in any of the political groups. And an Abdul Rashid Ghazi of the ill-fated Red Mosque has to announce to William Dalrymple that his is an agenda of bringing about social justice. “We want our rulers to be honest people”—perhaps a thought shared by many silent spectators in Pakistan who lean towards the far-right and the militant after seeing what those professing to be left and secular did for the populace. For once there has to be some across the board mechanism that political parties start awarding and commending public service rather than political gymnastics; of finally bidding goodbye the seasonal and the fair weather party member. Why is it that we are asking the same questions in the sixth decade of our existence; by now our political parties should have long outgrown the existential angst of their early years.
However at this point in history we are asking of the PPP to do so, for it stands at a political juncture where it can restructure itself afresh to weed out nepotism. And this can be done in no other way than to start respecting and rewarding personal accomplishments rather than genealogy; to recognize an individual’s contributions to society rather than their family lineage. We bear the young Bhutto-Zardari no ill will and his time will come. But let it be a time when he can tell us not what his grand father did for the country, and his mother for the nation, but what he can do for Pakistan and Pakistanis.