The political dynasty of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) debuted another family member during the final months of 2020 – no doubt preparing for the new year. Aseefa Bhutto Zardari addressed her first political rally, reminding many Pakistanis of her late mother, Benazir Bhutto. Aseefa, unlike her brother Bilawal Bhutto, wields both Urdu and influence much more consistently – and that is why even a member of the opposition conceded that “[She’s] pretty cool.” Aseefa resembles her mother both literally and figuratively and evokes a nostalgia for “feminism” that came with the Benazir-era.
However, one cannot forget that before Benazir – and Aseefa – are given the title of feminist-in-chief, they are Bhuttos. Just as Benazir’s popularity hinged on the longing for her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s populist regime, Aseefa’s hinges on Benazir’s accomplishment of being the first female leader of a Muslim country. It is not an accomplishment to continue the line of political dynasties, kleptocracy, and feudalism; this was solely performative and will keep power in the hands of men. The men of course being Imran Khan, Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif – who is employing the same tactics via his own daughter, and no matter how much PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-N pretend to oppose, the military generals.
Pakistan, until this point, has not given into the illusion of identity politics the way the West does. For example, the election of Kamala Harris is not feminist save for symbolism. It is operating within a capitalist system that suffocates women in lower classes, especially women of color. The romanticization that comes with Harris’ win will shield her administration from accountability and critique. She represents not women, but the terrifying advent of neoliberalism.
In this same way, to say that Benazir was a champion of feminism (or that her daughter is) is to concede that feminism can be commodified in a way that is still marketable to men in charge. It is merely a facade. In Benazir’s trajectory, the politics remained the same, just with some more angry men along the way. Benazir’s failure to overturn Zia-ul-Haq’s Hudood Ordinances, money-laundering schemes and her government’s brutal killings of the Mujahir community cannot be categorized as “feminist” in any shape or form. Her criticism of punishments against zina and condemnation of the Pakistani intelligence service for supporting the Taliban (even though she embraced the Taliban during her tenure) were made after she left office.
Benazir was a woman, yes, but she did nothing for the woman of Pakistan or its minorities. She did not repeal the blasphemy laws nor the second Amendment. Even her state policies were not long-lasting, just an indication of what could have been. Benazir lived lavishly as poverty in Pakistan rose by 33 percent and yet, she maintained a stronghold because of her empty promises. Apparently, keen on following her mother’s blunders, Aseefa attended a political rally at a time where COVID-19 cases are rising in the country. The irony is that she holds a master’s degree in public health. Pakistan’s love for Benazir and now, Aseefa does not come from a place of respect towards them or their womanhood, it comes from a place entrenched with elitism and corruption – we don’t know who else to follow because we’ve never had anything else.
We need structural change and reinvention in Pakistan, we don’t need a calculated political move that pretends to celebrate women. It is a guide to maintain the power of high profile men for they are nothing without the validation of those men. How much longer will symbols of a false feminism tide Pakistanis over? How much longer will we have to endure the destruction of our country from the hands of a few families? How much longer will we continue to pretend that Benazir led a revolution? Those visibly leading the fight for women’s rights in Pakistan are coincidentally the ones who are least affected by laws and policies: their money and influence shield them. Feminism does not simply mean equality of the sexes, one must understand the intersection of capitalism, class, and gender. The elite Pakistani women that are standing side by side at political rallies today and in previous decades have never lived a day without luxury and their presence does not change anything in terms of power, let alone for women in Pakistan.