Couple of weeks ago I saw two short films, one news report, the other a documentary. They have apparently no relevance to each other. But for me they exposed latent truths about the so-called “Moslem world.”
The first one was about the return of Binazir Bhutto to Pakistan. She is the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, who was introduced both by the reporter and herself as the first Moslem leader of a “Moslem country.” The international media tried hard to turn this into an important piece of news. We were even shown live the landing of the airplane which took her and her entourage from Dubai into Karachi. We were made to feel emotional by her broken voice talking about her beloved country. The first Moslem woman leader who was elected and toppled twice, tried for embezzlement and money laundering. By the words of the same reporter, in exile, in Dubai she has made millions of dollars, amassed in international banks.
She has made a deal with President Musharraf, to help him, as an ousted opposition leader, out of the political crisis he is in, in return for her money be unblocked in Pakistani’s banks. They have negotiated behind closed doors for a while. Finally they reached an agreement. Musharraf is in deep political crisis. Since September 11 terrorist attack, Musharraf has become increasingly close to the US. The United States has paid him dearly for his services. This has put him in odds with the Islamists, who enjoy a great power in Pakistan. Musharraf was previously a great ally of Taliban. Taliban leaders escaped to Pakistan after the western military attack led by the US. Islamic Madrasses, where suicide bombers are trained and Islamists recruit their victims, are an important feature of Pakistani society. The raw between Musharraf’s government and the Islamists came to a height after the siege of the Red mosque.
The scenario of Ms Bhutto’s return is classic or better described a cliché. The military dictator is in trouble, the milder opposition leader, whose main job when in power, had been to plunder the country and the people, is portrayed as the hero of democracy. The international media knows this job only too well, to sell her as the angel of freedom to the frustrated people, stuck between two evils, one military dictatorship and the other an Islamic one. This game of political and media engineering is too transparent to miss. However, what struck me was, the way she was described repeatedly, as the first “Moslem woman leader in the Moslem world.” Why did they have to mention this repeatedly? What purpose does this serve?
In the world under the Islamic terrorism, and gaining power by political Islam, finding “moderate Moslem figures” has become a strategy. The problem has been defined by the politicians, strategists and academia as Moslem extremists, so, to their mind, the panacea is Moderate Moslems. Particularly if they are female they are more appealing. This is why we keep being reminded of her being the first Moslem woman leader. This is to say she is a good alternative vis a vis the extremists.
However, one cannot help but to ask some pertinent questions. Did Ms Bhutto make any changes in the lot of Pakistani women, when she was leading the country? Did her reign make any significant change in Islamic laws concerning women’s rights and male priviledges? Did she even try to challenge the Islamists grip on power? Did she even attempt to close down the notorious Madrasses? The answer to all above questions is a clear NO.
We should leave Ms. Bhutto and move to the second story.
During the same days that Ms. Bhutto was constantly in the news, I was sent several emails inviting me to see a short is also a woman. I felt excited, clicked on the link to see this first woman bus driver under the Islamic regime in Iran. As the film progressed I felt more excited and a deep feeling of joy overtook me. To watch this brave, determined and confident woman in an Islam stricken country was thrilling.
The first woman bus driver I saw was in 1974 in Paris. I remember when I got on the bus and realized the driver was a woman, I felt so excited and it was even more exciting than seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. I did not think that 33 years later I would feel the same way about another woman bus driver.
To me, this woman symbolizes women’s resistance movement under the Islamic rule. This woman with her natural confidence, her words, her “as a matter of fact” behaviour, her comfort in front of the camera, the way she described her mission, exposes the deep roots and mass scale of women’s liberation movement in Iran. She reigns in her bus, she dictates her own laws. In this bus men get on from the back door and women from the front, contrary to the Islamic laws of the land. Some of the men who are told to get on from the back door, are puzzled, but dare not question her, when they hear her determined and confident voice. She even gets into arguments with several men bus drivers, who she says harass her while driving. She admits that she slapped one of them. She is asked why? She responds in a calm and natural tone of voice, “We are the bulldozer, flattening the grounds for other women.”
The discussions among the passengers are interesting. Women seem so approving of their driver. They hope that a case like this would have positive effect on the gender roles in the society. Some men look puzzled, but the atmosphere is so charged for women’s rights, that they try to be cautious in their statements. You can definitely discern the women’s offensive in this bus. This 10 minute documentary is more revealing about women’s liberation movement in Iran that a 500 page book.
I must admit when I read the film’s title, I was expecting a big, heavy woman behind the wheels. But this woman had a rather fragile built, with her sun glasses she looked more like a fashion model than a bus driver in a country ruled by Islamist misogynists.
When the film was finished, almost by way of a natural reflex, I compared these two first women in the world called “Moslem.” One from the ruling classes, privileged, rich, with vast resources accessible to her, twice the prime minister. Has she done any thing to challenge the Islamic values, the misogynism that has absolute power in Pakistan? Has the lot of women improved a tiny bit under her rule? Has she tried to appear as a bulldozer for women’s freedom in Pakistan, even for one day? No. In power and out of power, she has tried to appease the Islamists.
What about the first woman bus driver in Iran? Just by mere choice of occupation she has challenged the whole value system governing the society. She has been giving electrical shocks to thousands men and women every day. Everyone getting on that bus, after the first shock, would think about gender roles in the society. When they arrive home safely, they would definitely think twice before calling a woman “the weak” (a common term by which traditional men address women.)
I believe we should call this bus, the freedom bus. A half hour journey in this bus gives everyone more food for thought than hours of meeting on women’s liberation. Her existence is a statement against traditional male chauvinist values and Islam. She is in essence a leader of the women’s liberation movement, a bulldozer that flattens the grounds for women to dare new challenges, break walls, cross new borders.