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Women seek voice in Pakistan election after Bhutto's death

16 February, 2008

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LAHORE, Pakistan (AFP) - When Pakistan's slain opposition leader and first female premier Benazir Bhutto was alive, school governess Naziesh Mubarak Ali had high hopes that her lot in life would improve.

But since Bhutto's death in a suicide bomb attack in December, Ali's optimism has dimmed, and she has little faith that parliamentary elections scheduled for Monday will bring great change.

"Male politicians have done nothing. They do nothing for the poor and working class," the 40-year-old told AFP in the eastern city of Lahore. "We need another leader like Benazir Bhutto."

Although debate rages over Bhutto's legacy in advancing Pakistani womens' rights during her two terms in the 1980s and 1990s, she will go down in history as the first female leader of a Muslim nation.

Her death shook Pakistan, and opinion polls suggest a strong sympathy vote is likely for her Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Even a pro-government candidate lamented her absence from the political scene.

"She was a brave and independent woman who had good contacts with (the) rest of the world. Her assassination is a great loss," said Nadya Gabol, who is contesting for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement against a PPP candidate.

But some women have been stung by what they see as decades of neglect by the government.

"Women have a lot of problems; healthcare, education, jobs," said 45-year-old Yahya, who gave only one name. "There is no proper representation of women in politics here, or in anything else. I expect no change."

Political parties would like her to believe differently, and as polling day nears they are espousing their female-friendly policies to try and woo Pakistan's huge female electorate.

Fatima Atif Malhi is a member of the Pakistan Muslim-League-Q, which supports President Pervez Musharraf, and is on her party's list to win one of the provincial seats reserved for women.

"It is the woman who makes the house and is the mother of the house. It is her who carries on the teaching of the household," she said.

"Insha'Allah (god willing), hopefully I will be a voice for them."

Muslim Pakistan is traditionally a male-dominated society, and women have historically had little equality with their male counterparts.

Female literacy stands at just 35 percent, compared to 64 percent for men, United Nations figures show, while reports of so-called honour killings, "fatwas" against women accused of un-Islamic behaviour, and gang-rapes as a form of punishment regularly make headlines worldwide.

Khalida Ghaus, managing director of think-tank the Social Policy and Development Centre, said women's traditional role in Pakistani society was seen as looking after men and producing the next generation.

"Since Pakistan has also been a tribal and feudal society, we do see also the influence of the feudal mindset and the tribal mindset ... which sees women in a very subordinate and a submissive role," she said.

Women's rights activist Shahtaj Qizilbash said inroads were being made, with women excelling in education, and increasingly in politics.

"The political parties have also now given a lot of importance to women and given them tickets to fight on," said Qizilbash, who is a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

To what extent Bhutto -- visible on election posters throughout Pakistan in her trademark loose white veil -- paved the way for women in politics is hotly debated.

Faiza Ahmed, a PPP politician and former MP said she was a "role model" who introduced female healthcare workers and a quota for women in government offices. But others say she barely made a mark for women in Pakistan.

"I was very sad because I distinctly remember when she became the prime minister for the first time the female population was extremely happy about it, but she did nothing," said Ghaus.

She said it was in fact Musharraf -- a military strongman who seized power in a 1999 coup -- who did more for women's rights, expanding a quota list in both national parliament and at the local level.

In 2006 he also amended the country's draconian religious legislation dealing with rape, which Bhutto had failed to address during her tenures.

But Nassim Syed, who has been forced to beg on Lahore's streets because of poverty, said she supported Bhutto because she was a woman and she spoke out for the poor.

"My husband was paralysed two months ago and there is no source of income. I have six children ... it is very difficult for me to survive in these conditions," she said.

End.

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