Benazir Bhutto’s rise to power at the end of the 1980s was greeted with cautious optimism by women in Pakistan who thought that they would have a Prime Minister who was sympathetic to their cause and committed to working to improve the status of women in the country. In 1994 the case of Zainab Noor brought the issue of domestic violence starkly into focus and Benazir Bhutto was forced to turn her attention to women and their problems, something she had drifted away from as she struggled for political survival. Zainab Noor had run away from her husband and his beatings. When she was returned he punished her by tying her to a bed, inserting hot metal rods in her vagina and passing an electric current through them. This did not kill her outright, but she was terribly wounded. As activists and women’s organizations protested this case, and the many incidents of domestic violence that usually went unreported, Ms Bhutto committed the Government to providing medical costs for Zainab Noor’s treatment abroad and setting up a special cell to investigate cases of domestic violence, particularly burnings.
Activist and Director of the Progressive Women’s Association (PWA), Shahnaz Bokhari, says that visiting the victim in hospital was a pivotal moment in her life and the emergence of the PWA. Since March 1994 the PWA has documented more than 6500 victims of domestic violence, mainly burns victims, from just 3 hospitals in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It was the case of Zainab Noor that brought the issue of domestic violence to the media’s attention. Along with the particular intersection of women and politicians at the time this enabled women to maintain a visible profile in seeking to negotiate for change in gender relations.
The fall of the Bhutto government however demonstrated the dilemma in Pakistan as instability in governments, and their rise and fall, saw issues fall between the cracks. This is probably most true when it comes to women’s issues. There was a window of opportunity for negotiation when this incident and the political milieu at the time paved the way for documentation, acknowledgment and debate on the problem of domestic violence. This case highlighted the particular impact of a sympathetic state, or at least sympathetic politicians, and leads to questions about whether their involvement opens negotiations or is purely reactive. It highlights too, women’s perception of state involvement in the processes of negotiation. The impact of government instability on the ability of women to negotiate when they do forge opportunities out of situations was brought into focus.