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Benazir Bhutto and Islamic Law. Patriarchal regimes, not the Muslim religion, have subjugated the women of Islam

IN the aftermath of the remarkably free elections in Pakistan in November, the country has a new prime minister who just happens to be a women. So far, the most common reaction to Benazir Bhutto's electoral triumph seems to be amazement that such an event could come to pass in a Muslim country. The typical Western reaction springs from the popular perception that the Islamic religion relegates women to a subservient role, a perception that owes much to the images of shrouded women in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the official rhetoric from these countries denouncing demands for greater freedom for women as antithetical to Islamic morality.

The perception that it is incongruous for a Muslim woman to have risen to such eminence is based on the Western tendency to assume that Islamic doctrine prohibits women from participating in politics. In reality, it is not Islam that stands in the way of Muslim women participating in the political life of their countries. It is, rather, the actions of certain Islamic governments that have circumscribed the role of women.

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Islamic religious texts do not specifically delineate the role Muslim women can play in political life, and what they imply is a matter of interpretation.

The historical record shows that in the early Islamic community under the leadership of revered figures like the prophet Muhammad, women played central, active roles in both political and military affairs. Only later, as Islamic doctrines combined with local customs that subjugated women, did a consensus develop that in Islam women should be barred from politics.

In traditional Muslim societies, women were subservient to males within the family. Muslim husbands, for example, were accorded the right to have as many as four wives at a time, to demand obedience from them, and to divorce them at will.

In contrast, Muslim women were placed under the tutelage of their husbands and male relatives, and were legally obliged to defer to male authority. They wound up confined to domestic chores and could have little say in public affairs.

The Islamic sources on family law can be read to support the patriarchal institutions characteristic of traditional societies in the Muslim world. But now that traditional societies are being transformed by industrialization, mass communication, urbanization and public education, there are Muslims who advocate reconsideration of these sources.

Their opponents, however, favor the use of Islam to thwart encroachments of modernity and Western influence. They include the political elites of Saudi Arabia and Iran and their allies in the clergy. Islamic law has been used as a tool to forestall social evolution that would lead to greater equality between the sexes.

It is this ``Islam'' that has become familiar to the average Westerner, who associates the religion (as opposed to the political use of it) with a scheme of sex-based apartheid.

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If Islam were as the Saudi and Iranian governments define it - a religion that requires women to remain cloistered in the home, avoiding all contact with men outside their immediate families, Ms. Bhutto would have had no business aspiring to public office. Nor would she have been allowed to fight a vigorous campaign on behalf of her party and the restoration of human rights in Pakistan.

According to their policies, she should have been rejected for violating Islamic standards of morality by traveling alone to study abroad (Radcliffe and Oxford) and for appearing in public in attire that exposed her face and hair to male onlookers.

BUT in Pakistan, since the death of President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq last August, official definitions of Islam are no longer being imposed from above by an authoritarian regime.

Instead, the people of Pakistan - both male and female - have been free to decide via democratic vote whether their Islamic faith bars a women like Bhutto from leading her country. When she emerged from the November elections with the largest tally of any candidate, the verdict of the electorate was clear.

Without free elections, however, it is unthinkable that a populist politician like Bhutto could have come to power; there is no place for women in the ruling circles of the authoritarian regimes that run many Muslim countries. It is precisely the absence of an open political process that prevents Muslim women from assuming a greater role in public life.

This parallels events outside the Muslim world; women have achieved high office only under conditions that permitted voters' preferences to be faithfully recorded and carried out. The late Indira Ghandi, Corazon Aquino, and Margaret Thatcher all owe their achievements to democratic, open elections.

This is not to say, however, that Bhutto made no concessions to Pakistani Islamic tradition in her rise to power. She agreed in 1987 to an arranged marriage which she admitted was not a love match but was made in deference to Pakistani customs. This pre-election wedding seems to have owed much to practical considerations familiar to politicians everywhere who operate within a democratic framework.

Despite concessions to these social norms, Bhutto's political success seems to have been facilitated by the support of her husband, who apparently sees no conflict between her political ambitions and her role as wife and mother.

Ultimately, Bhutto's triumph signals not so much one woman's historic break with Islamic taboos, as a broader and encouraging phenomenon: that Pakistan's Muslim voters have no trouble reconciling allegiance to their faith with a wholehearted commitment to democracy. As the first female leader of a major Muslim country, Bhutto has become a challenge to those who would have her veiled and homebound by virtue of her religion and gender.

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