Archive for Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Muslim women risk more than censure by speaking out

January 2, 2008

I was sitting down in a computer store waiting for my husband when I saw the news scroll out on a big screen above me. Benazir Bhutto, a Muslim woman campaigning to be elected head of Pakistan, had been assassinated.

Bhutto had been prime minister twice before and had been ousted and exiled. Although she had been born into wealth and power, she led a stormy life. Her religion and that of her family was Shia Islam, but she attended Catholic schools in Pakistan for her early education. She went on to graduate from Radcliffe College at Harvard University with cum laude honors in comparative government and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Then, she attended Oxford University in the United Kingdom studying philosophy, politics and economics, where she also received honors.

Bhutto was no newcomer to the vagaries of politics and the harsh penalties which came with losing the upper hand. Her father, Zulfidar Ali Bhutto, had once been prime minister of Pakistan. He was ousted by a military coup in 1977 and hanged in 1979.

Benazir Bhutto and her mother were detained for some time in a police camp. She was allowed to return to the United Kingdom in 1984. Two of her brothers were killed under suspicious circumstances. In 1988, in the first open election in more than a decade, she became prime minister of Pakistan. She was the youngest person and the first woman to head a Muslim-majority state. She lost her position in 1990, but became Prime Minister again from 1993 until 1996. She had returned to Pakistan in early October of 2007 to once again seek office, but she was assassinated on Dec. 27.

Her plight made me think of a Muslim woman with whom I shared living quarters when I attended the University of Kansas. She too was born into an influential and wealthy family in Egypt.

It isn't Pakistan, but the culture for women is similar to that in Pakistan and many other Muslim countries. She was the youngest and apparently had been treated with indulgence. She had graduated from the University of Cairo and then went to Indiana for her masters in psychology and had come to KU for her Ph.D. in psychology.

We became friends and shared our respective growing up experiences. She was really careful about her behavior in front of other students not only from Egypt but also other Muslim countries. She told me that she couldn't go to a movie with one of her fellow countrymen because they would consider her a fallen woman.

It was through her than I realized what a cloistered and closed-off world existed for many of the women in other parts of the world. I honestly think that the repression is more a result of culture than of religion, but it exists without doubt.

My friend said that when she stayed at the family quarters in Cairo, she had to be extremely careful of her general conduct in public. However, when she and the other female members of her family vacationed in France or elsewhere, they went to the beach, restaurants, movies and shopping without worrying about appearing to be "loose" women.

She spoke both French and English without accent, and moved comfortably about the campus as long as she was not in view of fellow countrymen. But, once, she made contact with somebody else of her country or culture, she became another person-one which didn't smoke or walk about without a covered head or speak out of turn. She said she could never marry a person from her country because she couldn't be free. Eventually, she married a German citizen.

It is a testament to the wealth and influence of Bhutto's family that she was able to achieve so much. In her times in power, she tried to liberalize the laws for women in Pakistan, but was largely unable to do so. However, the very fact that she was able to achieve the office and the accompanying respect made her an important role model for little girls' aspirations.

Sadly, her untimely and brutal death may have dampened ambition for those less courageous than she, but I hope not. Her achievements in politics and government were real and a demonstration of what women can do if given a chance.

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