The status of women in most Islamic countries has faced challenges based on the Sharia law and traditions. The challenges that are mainly from the male gender are caused by the skewed interpretation of Quran, extremism, low levels of literacy of the most vocal oppressors (men), and poverty among other factors. However, despite these challenges, great strides have been made through activism and other efforts that have been geared towards advocacy of women rights, education, and their rights to hold leadership positions in their various Islamic societies. A good example is Pakistan. Despite the various challenges that woman go through, major strides have been made towards changing women’s oppression and advocacy of their rights.
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For instance, various concrete examples in Pakistan have acted to show that women can have the ability to hold leadership positions in their nations with great success, despite the forgoing wrong and misguided perceptions regarding their abilities and standing in the society. This paper will discuss Benazir Bhutto and Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan. It will compare their positions along with their importance in contemporary Islamic arena. It will also identify some of the major difficulties that the two figures face with an eye on the question of women leadership. The source of inspiration and strength for such women will also be discussed. The right to political activism and power that they have enjoyed and their ability to challenge their societies by claiming human rights, regardless of any challenges, is also illuminated.
Benazir Bhutto was the former Prime Minister of Pakistan who served for two consecutive terms from 1988 to 1990 and then from 1993 to 1996. She was born on June 21, 1953 in a political family of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was a former prime minister (73-77) and president (1971-1973) of Pakistan and the founder of Social Democratic Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Bhutto is cherished as the first woman prime minister in a Muslim country. According to Ahmed, after her father’s assassination in 1982, Bhutto assumed the leadership of her father’s party PPP at the age of 29 years1. According to Shafqat, the move made her the first woman in the second most populous Islamic country to head a major political party2. After undergoing tough trials from the government due to her opinion concerning the assassination of her father and the infringement of human rights, she won the support of many citizens. She was later elected the 11th prime minister of Pakistan3.
Although she faced controversies of hardheadedness and tolerance to corruption, Bhutto drove the economic, security, and socio-capitalist policies in Pakistan. In her first term, she faced many challenges, including workers’ strikes, recession, and corruption accusations4. She was ultimately dismissed from position by the then conservative president, Ghulam Khan. Bhutto was later declared the people’s choice to hold administrative centers again in 1993 after winning a legislative vote with the majority seats. However, like her first term, she survived a coup de tat in 1995 that was supported by some military generals. Bhutto maintained her tough stance on trade unions by disbanding them and their leaders and providing incentives to workers.
However, for the second time, charges of corruption were made against her in a Japanese deal that involved her husband. President Farooq Leghari dismissed her in the close of 1996 as the Prime Minister. Since that period, Bhutto’s popularity dwindled. This situation was evident when she contested for a parliamentary position and lost in 1997 legislative voting. For fear of charges on corruption, Bhutto fled into exile in Dubai and London until 2007 when she was given official pardon. President Parvez Musharraf dropped all her charges through the certified pardon. After returning to Pakistan, she launched her political career. However, she was assassinated on December 27 when she was on a campaign trail for a leadership position in the parliamentary elections that were scheduled for 2008.
Malala Yousafzai is a 17-year-old woman rights activist who won the Nobel peace prize in 2014. Yousafzai was born in July 12 1997 in the Swat valley, Pakistan. She is the youngest Nobel Peace trophy champion in the world and the second champion in Pakistan5. She has made her name due to her promotion for people’s liberty mainly on girl-child learning in Swat Valley and across the world. Despite her being a young girl in a country where women are suppressed and amidst threats and attacks from Taliban6, Yousafzai has courageously and continued to champion for the right to education for all girls across the world7. Against all odds, she began blogging at only 11 years. She has been able to narrate and bring to light the plight of the girl child in her community where Taliban Militants banned girls from attending school. Such militants occupied and applied strict Islamic Sharia law in Swat Valley8.
Her blogging has propelled her to an internationally recognized activist on education rights of girls. As a result, she has been featured in major international media outlets such as the BBC and New York times that created a documentary detailing her days and the struggles of the girl child in the Swat Valley. She has also appeared in numerous interviews on radio, televisions, and print media both locally and globally9. Yousafzai’s activism was accredited for pushing for military intervention in Swat Valley that liberated the area from Taliban domination. Many people noticed her efforts, including the Taliban group, which attempted to assassinate her in October 2012. The attempted assassination left her with serious head bullet injuries, which caused international outcry and condemnation for heinous act on such a young girl.
The Taliban claimed responsibility and warned Yousafzai and her family if the girl did not stop her activism. In honor and support of her efforts, various initiatives on the education rights of girls have been launched across the world. One of the most notable initiatives dubbed, “I am Yousafzai” was launched by Gordon Brown. It called for the enrollment of all girls in the world to school by 201510. In addition, according to Weiss, in courtesy of her efforts, the first bill on the right to education in Pakistan was passed11. In recognition of her devotion, Yousafzai has won and received various awards, including Sakharov prize of 2013, an honorary citizenship by Canadian parliament, world children’s prize of Sweden, honorary doctorate degree from the University of Kings College, and a Nobel Peace Prize of 201412 as Douki, Nacef, Belhadj, Bouasker, and Ghachem confirm. Despite the various challenges she has faced, including a threat on her life, Yousafzai still pushes her quest for education of girls in Pakistan and across the world.
Principles of Islam
Every faith has a variety of doctrines that it upholds to manage and interact with its stakeholders. Such doctrines might sometimes match with what many religions teach since they serve as universal principles that guide people in their day-to-day running of their religious affairs. The Islamic culture upholds principles such as love for others, trustworthiness, the significance of interfering with one’s peace of mind, the need to worship Allah alone, and the need to consume what is good for one’s health among others. Such principles have one thing in common: they teach people on how to be their best not only from an individual perspective but also from the public point of view. However, it is crucial to point out that when people devote themselves to demonstrate the application of the above principles even when it is clear that they nurture people’s morals, such people might face opposition with reference to their religion, gender, and even age. This section uses the two aforementioned figures to show how they courageously relied on these moral rules to reach out to people at a time when women had no say in the society.
Love for Self and Others
Various principles of Islam can be attributed to the strength of powerful Muslim women such as Benazir Bhutto and Malala Yousafzai. One of such principles is found under the teachings of Prophet Muhammad on love for oneself and other people. The two women leaders have overcome threats and opposition from the misguided Islamic faith of the Taliban. Age-old religious, political, and cultural positions were great obstacles to their call for democracy. According to Hertz-Lazarowitz and Shapira, love for others made Bhutto and Yousafzai stand firm to emerge great women in the Islamic world13. Bhutto paid dearly for her efforts, including illnesses, time in prison, and other ills, which were done on her14. This situation was a pure demonstration of love for others as engrained in the Islamic values. In the same way, Yousafzai went through tough times to secure a democratic space in Pakistan where every girl would go to school. According to Fazl-E-Haider, when other girls and parents decline the chance to write about the pupil’s daily on experience with Taliban, Yousafzai and her father accepted it boldly15.
This observation spelt danger in a place where the Taliban group was executing police officers and hanging their heads to instill fear. Moreover, even after she was shot in an attempt to eliminate her life, she pressed on with the fight for the rights of children to access education. After the second attempt on her life by the Taliban where a bullet was left lodged in her shoulder, Yousafzai still stands firm on her campaign. In fact, she announced during a UN conference that her pursuit was to ensure that all girls in Pakistan attended school, including children of the Taliban group and other terrorists. Yousafzai also started a foundation to secure funds to educate girls. This observation is an indication of the principle of love for self and love for others as indicated in the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. The two figures knew that love was a powerful tool that could change the then men’s perception that women were a weak lot that could only rely on their (men) efforts to get virtually everything. They were only viewed as vessels whose best job was to deliver children, cook, and/or clean the house.
Implication of Harming Oneself and Others
Hertz-Lazarowitz and Shapira observe the bodily, mental, and spiritual pain that Bhutto and Yousafzai were exposed to16. However, the Islamic value of not harming others guided them not to instill harm or seek revenge on others. The infringement of her rights and torture from government as Bhutto fought for her father and her subsequent lack of revenge once in position of power clearly reflect her application of the principle of not harming others. Her torture by the government caused international hullabaloo that resulted in her release in 1984. When she later won the elections to become a prime minister, Bhutto did not punish Zia-ul-Haq, the army general, and other government officials who had made her and her family suffer.
Instead, she sought to upgrade the welfare of the people of Pakistan by fighting for democratization of Pakistan, enhancement of security of the people, and implementation of economic policies to turn around the economy of the nation17. She enhanced security and economic development. Although she could not achieve all the changes that she had wished for the people of Pakistan during her lifetime, she is remembered for her stance on human rights. Moreover, even after Bhutto and her government were ousted on allegations of corruption for two times, she did not plan any revenge attacks on her foes. Instead, she continued agitating for a better Pakistan.
Yousafzai also embraced the Islamic principle of not harming oneself and others. For instance, despite an attempt on her life due to opposition from Taliban on her efforts of fighting for the education rights of girls, Yousafzai forgave them and continued to agitate for the rights of all girls to access education. However, despite all the pain and anguish, Yousafzai made a public declaration that she was not fighting anyone and that she was only campaigning for the right to education for all girls in Pakistan, including the Taliban children. This move was a bold expression of her love for others.
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Another value of Islamic faith that drives both Yousafzai and Bhutto is being trustworthy. As Chowdhury observes, Bhutto could win public trust after she underwent trial in different jails in Pakistan following her agitation for re-sentencing of her father18. Despite different accusations against her, she won the trust of the people and eventually won the prime minister’s position twice. This observation is an indication of the trust that the people of Pakistan had in her. The trust earned her a name in the international arena as the first woman prime minister in an Islamic country. The triumph of these women against all odds to receive local and international recognition is a good lesson, a motivation, and a declaration that they can decide, make the necessary steps, persevere, and become leaders in Islamic countries19.
Yousafzai also had the capacity to win the trust of both internal and external supporters. Her daily whereabouts on the BBC were read across the world. She later came out publicly on television and radio to denounce the infringement of girls’ right to education. Despite the challenges she faced in her home village from Taliban opposition, she did not abate her quest to see all girls get education just like the boys. She not only received recognition in her native nation of Pakistan but also internationally. For instance, she had traveled widely and met the mighty such as President Obama as she sought to gain as much support as possible from all people across the world20. The government of South Africa also recognized her as evidenced by her nomination by Desmond Tutu for a peace prize. The government of Canada, the United Kingdom, India, and Sweden accorded her citizenship. In fact, she won the trust of the United Nations where she had been invited to speak about girl-child education. Later, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, thus becoming the youngest prizewinner in the world. The achievement was an indication of her ability to win the trust of the world.
Strength of Yousafzai and Bhutto
Ahmed asserts that the strength of women leaders in Muslim-led countries can be traced on the right to activism and personal drive21. Both Yousafzai and Bhutto are self-determined individuals who decided to overcome all odds, including terrorism. They stand out for their rights and privileges of others. According to Chakrabarty, the Taliban people and their skewed interpretation of the Quran also seek to bar women from accessing power and influence22. For example, both Yousafzai and Bhutto had to cope with the Taliban. However, self-determination, perseverance, and courage enabled them to overcome extremism. As Metcalfe reveals, the Quran and the constitution of Pakistan allow women to hold leadership positions23. However, only strong women can contend the political, religious, and backward traditional beliefs. Such women can stand out like Yousafzai and Bhutto. Shehabuddin observes that women can challenge the situation in Islamic countries and acquire power24. For example, Bhutto became the first woman prime minister in Islamic countries while Yousafzai became the youngest and the first winner of Nobel Peace Prize in Pakistan. This achievement has been realized amidst threats and attempts on their lives from the Taliban group.
The story of the two Pakistani women brings to light the predicament of women in Pakistan and the challenges that they have to overcome to hold positions of power in their society. The obstacles they overcome are mainly attributed to poor interpretation Islamic principles as dictated by the Quran, opposition from uneducated or ignorant men who want to retain the status quo, and poverty among other factors. The successes of Yousafzai and Bhutto in their different spheres of influence clearly indicate that women are as capable of holding positions of power as men can and even with better results and impact in their societies. However, the achievement of these two women has served as a lesson that although it is possible to hold positions of power, the obstacles are numerous and that it may be a choice between life and death. With the realization that women deserve equal rights as men, it now requires more efforts to eliminate ignorance and other hindrances in conservative societies that continue to oppress women and view them as lesser human beings who do not deserve equal status. Islamic principles such as love for others, not harming others, and trustworthiness should be the guide for societies to allow women to have equal rights and/or have equal status like all other members of the society.
Ahmed, Leila. “The Women of Islam.” Transition 1, no. 83(2000): 78-97.
Chakrabarty, Aditi. “Challenges before Megawati Sukarnoputri.” Economic and Political Weekly 36, no. 36(2001): 3439-3441.
Chowdhury, Najma. “Lessons on Women’s Political Leadership from Bangladesh.” Signs 34, no. 1(2008): 8-15.
Douki, Saida, Ferdinand Nacef, Abel Belhadj, Alphonse Bouasker, and Richard Ghachem. “Violence Against Women In Arab And Islamic Countries.” Archives of Women’s Mental Health 6, no. 3 (2003): 165-71.
Fazl-E-Haider, Syed. “Malala versus Extremism.” Harvard International Review 34, no. 4(2013): 73-76.
Hertz-Lazarowitz, Rachel, and Tamar Shapira. “Muslim Women’s Life Stories: Building Leadership.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 36, no. 2(2005): 165-181.
Metcalfe, Beverly. “Women, Management and Globalization in the Middle East.” Journal of Business Ethics 83, no. 1(2008): 85-100.
Rinaldo, Rachel. “Envisioning the Nation: Women Activists, Religion and the Public Sphere in Indonesia.” Social Forces 86, no. 4(2008): 1781-1804.
Shafqat, Saeed. “Pakistan under Benazir Bhutto.” Asian Survey 36, no. 7(1996): 655-672.
Shehabuddin, Elora. “Jamaat-i-Islami in Bangladesh: Women, Democracy and the Transformation of Islamist Politics.” Modern Asian Studies 42, no. 2/3(2008): 577-603.
Weiss, Anita. “Benazir Bhutto and the Future of Women in Pakistan.” Asian Survey 30, no. 5 (1990): 433-45.
- Leila Ahmed, “The Women of Islam,” Transition 1, no. 83(2000): 79.
- Saeed Shafqat, “Pakistan under Benazir Bhutto,” Asian Survey 36, no. 7(1996): 655.
- Najma Chowdhury, “Lessons on Women’s Political Leadership from Bangladesh,” Signs 34, no. 1(2008): 8.
- Shafqat, 657
- Fazl-E-Haider, 74
- Beverly Metcalfe, “Women, Management and Globalization in the Middle East,” Journal of Business Ethics 83, no. 1(2008): 85.
- Ibid, 74
- Ahmed, 79
- Ibid, 79
- Fazl-E-Haider, 76
- Anita Weiss, “Benazir Bhutto and the Future of Women in Pakistan,” Asian Survey 30, no. 5 (1990): 433.
- Saida Douki, Ferdinand Nacef, Abel Belhadj, Alphonse Bouasker, and Richard Ghachem, “Violence Against Women In Arab And Islamic Countries,” Archives of Women’s Mental Health 6, no. 3 (2003): 165.
- Hertz-Lazarowitz, and Shapira, 166
- Chowdhury, 9
- Fazl-E-Haider, 75
- Hertz-Lazarowitz, and Shapira, 168
- Rinaldo, 1789
- Chowdhury, 12
- Rachel Rinaldo, “Envisioning the Nation: Women Activists, Religion and the Public Sphere in Indonesia,” Social Forces 86, no. 4(2008): 1785.
- Aditi Chakrabarty, “Challenges before Megawati Sukarnoputri,” Economic and Political Weekly 36, no. 36(2001): 3439.
- Ahmed, 84
- Chakrabarty, 3440
- Metcalfe, 89
- Shehabuddin, 579