Not the Usual Stereotype: Benazir’s Life & Death

The reaction to Benazir’s death is one that evokes an initial sympathy in most. Nevertheless it is followed by a vast spectrum of reactions ranging from grief to nonchalance.

 

While many join her estranged niece Fatima Bhutto in mourning her untimely and violent end as a person but continue to abhor her politics, many simply seek to revere her charismatic persona and the bold politician that she was perceived as. It was evident in the frenzy of the many “male” mourners who were seen reaching out in the mayhem surrounding her death, to simply touch her casket as it was being carried out from the hospital or the clamor abounding in the crowds that rioted across Pakistan.

The outpouring of grief and love was manifested in her followers like the one, who at a wizened seventy years of age, considered himself, “orphaned”.

 

Nevertheless the entire persona of Benazir threatens to drown in the criticism (or appreciation for that matter) that usually surrounds departed politicians of any shade, color or inclination. With her being a woman, no doubt she has to bear the burden of extra scrutiny.

 

The narratives surrounding her life and death are being reflected in the news coverage across South Asia and are wafting round the world at the moment. While they are evoking political reactions there is another dimension emerging out between the lines (or graphics), as the saga of Benazir’s life is laid bare for western audiences.

 

Witnessing the frenzy over her death and the open mourning by men (not just women) is coming as a surprising jolt to western audiences. The common people as well as seasoned sociologists and observers of East are witnessing an incident that pivots solely around a Muslim woman. This is tugging at the weave and the weft of the Muslim woman stereotype that West upholds.

 

At this time in history the term Muslim woman evokes a stereotype of a “heavily veiled, secluded, and segregated women”. The usage of head-cover has become a symbol of supposed oppression and is seen as shorthand for the alleged backwardness and inability of the entire Muslim community to adapt to modern ways of life. Muslim women, especially within context of their faith are a highly debated and the questions of veil, oppression, personal laws, encompass and overwhelm their identity.

 

With the continuous in-your-face news coverage of Benazir’s death and Pakistan’s future being carried by the news channels across the Western continent; showing a glamorous Muslim woman in a trademark white headscarf and the talk of struggle, power, position, status, and impact of her life and death in the same breath has the hint of building an alternate dialogue about Muslim women.

 

Most western audiences are for the first time being exposed to the contemporary social interweave of a major Muslim country pertaining to its relation with a woman and one who has been a powerful politician at that. It’s a surprise for most to see a woman commanding such adulation and power in a country that is Islamic and as such stereotypically perceived as belligerent to women. Many observers are comparing the scenario to the apprehensive reception that Hillary Clinton is receiving as a woman in the US presidential politics. That analogy through the strength that Benazir commanded amongst the male politicians in her country makes Pakistan look more emancipated than US.

 

Although Benazir suffers intense criticism regarding corruption, myopic politics and failure to enhance women situation through repealing controversial laws such as Hudood and Zina ordinances or establishing women's police stations, courts, and women's development banks. However, her struggle and redemption following her father’s tragic end can become important references for rejuvenation and reinforcement of Islamic feminism.

 

As a political activist, author and the first woman to lead an Islamic nation her life can be of great value in combating the constant negative stereotyping of Muslim women. The fact that she catered to the feminine responsibilities of being a wife and mother biding her culture and society as well as that of a politician, when viewed in a social constructionist context can help frame a broad and contemporary response to western world’s interrogation on Islamic values and beliefs regarding the status of women in Islam.

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About AtherZia

Ather Zia is a political anthropologist working on militarization, gender and Kashmir. Currently she is a faculty at the Anthropology and Gender studies program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She is also a poet, writes short fiction and is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit at www.kashmirlit.org.

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