Thursday, 27 December 2007

Death on the Indus

Somehow, as soon as I heard the phrase "reports that she has been injured", I knew she was dead. It was bound to happen eventually. Unlike in Britain where, despite the cynical fear-mongering of repression-hungry ministers, such an event is almost unthinkable, Pakistan is a land where politics is still raw and real, a matter of life and death. It is a politics that, for all the Westminster-style veneer of democracy, more closely resembles that of Rome in the dying days of the Republic: ambitious generals, demotic aristocrats with a vast clientage, the ever-present threat of assassination. And the looming spectre of dictatorship.

The assassins will no doubt prove to be Islamic militants of one sort or another. Yet the assassination this most resembles is that of Rajiv Gandhi: another charming, Western-educated, possibly corrupt dynast blown up on the campaign trail. Benazir, as everyone knew her, was our kind of gal. She never let her headscarf (a concession to Muslim sensibilities) obscure or dampen a coiffure almost worthy of Marie Antoinette. Contemporaries used to tell fondly of how she zipped round Oxford in a yellow sportscar. This was a woman so interested in baubles that she actually stayed on in Oxford after finishing her degree so that she could be President of the Union. The rural poor, the core of her power-base, seldom did well out of her stints in office. Out of power, she seems to have spent most of her time shopping in Knightsbridge.

For all her faults, the worst of which were her narrowness of vision and a prima donna style, Benazir Bhutto was undeniably brave (suicidally so, it turns out) and, most of all, a woman. Her presence at the head of the second-largest Muslim nation made Islam, in the 1980s, seem plausibly progressive, proof that Iranian ayatollahs and Saudi despots didn't have everything their own way. Now, more than ever, it is in the contemplation of the position of women that the west feels smuggly superior to the festering swamp that is Islam. And the Islamists know this. A pro-western leader is bad enough. But a woman is surely an abomination, a transplanted alien, probably an American agent.

Hence it is at least arguable that she is a victim of misogyny no less than the Canadian teenager Pavez Aqsa, strangled by her father for her preference for western mores (and clothes). Twenty years ago her sex was scarcely an issue, just as her western connections merely added to her glamour. Indeed, having a female leader was to be following a trend. There was Indira Gandhi, recently murdered in Delhi. There was Golda Mair. And there was Margaret Thatcher, in full majesty, holding sway over the old colonial master. Now, though, it is very much the issue.

What will happen next in Pakistan I would not venture to suggest. But it won't be pretty.