Benazir Bhutto’s appointment as Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988 raised much criticism. In response, some female scholars sought to demonstrate that the taboo of female leadership is linked to a male chauvinist interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts.

This article was published in Oasis 30. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:05

With the 1988 electoral victory of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, for the first time in the modern era a woman achieved high political office in a Muslim-majority country. Whilst conservative religious circles contested the legitimacy of her election, some female researchers endeavored to demonstrate that the taboo of female leadership is connected to a male chauvinist understanding of Islam’s sacred texts.


In the West, women in Muslim majority societies are commonly perceived to be treated as second class citizens enjoying fewer rights than men. Yet nine Muslim majority states have had women heads of state or heads of government since 1988. Mauritius and Singapore, non-Muslim majority states, have elected Muslim women as presidents. Bangladesh and Senegal have each had two women Prime Ministers. Three Muslim women have served more than one term in office. See the table below for the countries and their women leaders.


Country (the asterisk highlights non-Muslim majority countries)

Woman Leader and Political Office

Time in Office


Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister

1988–89 and 1993–96


Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister

1991–1996 and 2001–2006


Tansu Çiller, Prime Minister



Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister

1996–2001 and 2009–today


Mame Madior Boye, Prime Minister



Megawati Sukarnoputri, President



Roza Otunbayeva, President



Atifete Jahjaga, President



Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé, Prime Minister


Northern Cyprus

Sibel Siber, Prime Minister

June–Sept 2013


Aminata Touré, Prime Minister



Aeenah Gurib-Fakim, President



Halima Yacob, President

From 2017



Some Muslim majority states have had or have women in senior positions below head of state or government; Malaysia has a woman deputy Prime Minister, Iran and Syria have women Vice-Presidents. Albania had a women defense minister. More women than clerics currently serve in Iran’s parliament. Tunisia, where 33.7% of members of the previous Parliament were women (higher than the average for members states of the European Union), and where a woman is mayor of Tunis, leads the Arab world. Women are also 47% of local councilors in Tunisia. Senegal is currently eleventh in the world for the percentage of women in Parliament and the highest with a Muslim majority.[i]


Globally, at present, fifty nine states have had women leaders. On the one hand, the status of women in different Islamic contexts varies and is a major topic of debate among scholars and human rights activists with calls for reform. Debate often centers around differences in some contexts between men’s and women’s rights in matters of divorce and inheritance and on the policing of dress codes. It was only in 2018 that women were permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, despite opposition by some Muslims, Muslim women have achieved an impressive record of political leadership while the United States, China and the Russian Federation, three of the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, remain among those countries that have yet to elect or appoint a woman as either head of government or head of state.


Benazir Bhutto’s electoral victory in Pakistan in 1988 saw the first Muslim woman achieve high political office in the modern period. Those who objected to her becoming Prime Minister cited various Qur’anic verses and hadith (sayings of Muhammad) as well as traditional views of women to try to prevent her from taking office and then to remove her. As other Muslim women have won elections since 1988, or have been appointed to office, it has become increasingly difficult for opponents to argue against their exercising leadership roles because more and more women have done so. Bhutto’s election also gave impetus to the work of Muslim feminist scholars who challenge androcentric interpretations of Islam. Among these, Fatima Mernissi (1940–2015) delved into history and discovered that regardless of the actual titles they held, a surprisingly large number of Muslim women governed in the pre-modern period.


Mernissi also did much to weaken men’s opposition to women leaders by critically re-examining the authenticity of some of the traditions they cite, while Amina Wadud has examined Qur’anic verses that men use with the aim of shutting the conversation down. Leila Ahmad has used historical analysis to argue that Islam’s original reforming tendency was thwarted by the resurgence of male privilege during the military expansion of the early caliphate. Beginning with Bhutto’s election in 1988 and the circumstances that led to this, we will examine the debate that this seminal event generated about women as leaders in Islam with particular reference to Mernissi’s, Wadud’s and Ahmed’s contributions. While some have called “Islamic feminism” a contradiction in terms, an “oxymoron,” these Muslim women challenge that claim.


Some women writers on Islam no longer identify as Muslim arguing that Islam is fundamentally anti-woman. Others work within Islam to re-interpret a tradition in which men have dominated this task. Bhutto, too, deserves more attention as a Muslim thinker than she has attracted. A recent book on key political thinkers edited by two distinguished male scholars of Islam discusses ten men.[ii] However, a case can be made that Bhutto’s writing and speeches merit her inclusion as at least one woman contributor to political thought in Islam.


The End of a Taboo


Benazir Bhutto was born in Karachi, Pakistan on June 21, 1953. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was Pakistan’s President 1971–1973 and its Prime Minister 1973–1977 as leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). At age sixteen, Benazir began studying at Harvard’s Radcliffe College graduating in 1973 with her BA having majored in comparative political studies. Moving to Oxford, she commenced her second degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall later that year which she received in 1977. She was the first Asian woman to serve a term as President of the Oxford Union and, as have an impressive number of former presidents, she would achieve high political office. Soon after returning to Pakistan, Zia-ul-Haq ousted her father in a military coup and later had him executed. For several years Benazir was periodically detained then jailed in 1981 after her brothers began armed opposition.


Released in 1984, she left Pakistan for London in voluntary exile. Zia implemented an Islamization policy and attracted support from such Islamist parties as Jamaat-e-Islami and its leader, Abu Ala Mawdudi (1903–1979), who held very conservative views on the role of women in Islam. Often called father of Islamic fundamentalism, Mawdudi actually supported Fatimah Jinnah’s bid for the presidency in 1964 over her opponent, whom he detested. Mawdudi quickly became disillusioned with Zia because he kept postponing promised elections. In 1986, when Zia lifted martial law, Benazir returned to Pakistan. When elections were finally announced in 1988, Benazir led the PPP in what proved to be a successful campaign running on a platform of economic reform. Zia died in an air crash August 17, 1988.


On November 18, when, after a two-month delay, the election took place the PPP won the largest number of seats, 94 to the 56 won by the Islamist alliance. Benazir should immediately have received President Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s invitation to form a government. However, because of objections to a woman becoming Prime Minister, this was delayed until December 2. Opponents during the campaign circulated a picture of Benazir dancing in a nightclub during a visit to Paris as evidence of her non-Islamic conduct and argued that Islam prohibits women from exercising political leadership. February 7, 1989, the United Ulama Convention called on citizens to reject Benazir’s premiership as anti-Islamic, citing the hadith, “A people who entrust their affairs to a woman will never prosperfrom Bukhari’s classic collection.[iii]


The Shia scholars present, though, stated that they did not oppose rule by women.[iv] The ulama also cited Qur’an 4:34 that men are in charge of women. They petitioned the Supreme Sharia Council, set up by Zia, to declare Benazir’s election invalid. The hadith cited above and Qur’an 4:34 are widely used to justify the view that a Muslim woman cannot hold high political office. Some also argue that Islam does not permit women and men to assemble together which pragmatically makes it difficult for women to preside over meetings where men are present or to lead prayers for men.


In his book on Purdah, Mawdudi argues that women are emotionally unsuited for such positions and, subject to periods of instability during menstruation, might make irrational and dangerous decisions.[v] A similar argument was used in Saudi Arabia to justify the ban on women driving. Conservative Muslims argue that men and women are biologically suited to perform different tasks and leading a state is among those that nature has allotted men. Classical criteria for who could become caliph included being male. In this view, by not compelling women to perform men’s tasks Islam honors and respects women while the Western world has compromised natural gender distinctions.


However, by a majority of four, the court decided on the ninth day of deliberation that Benazir could continue in office although this was subject to the President being (as he was) a male with the authority to dismiss her.[vi] There were two no votes and one abstention. In their discussion, they downgraded the hadith cited above to the weak category from the highest genre of genuine or sound even though classically all hadiths in Bukhari’s collection were thought to be authentic.[vii]


A Feminine Understanding of Tradition


Mernissi has discussed this hadith in detail. Mernissi both develops the science of hadith criticism and employs some of the very earliest criteria to adjudicate authenticity. The hadith cited above appears to have emerged after ‘Ā’isha, one of Muhammad’s widows, co-led the rebellion of 656 against ‘Alī, the fourth caliph. Its narrator, Abū Bakra, opportunistically remembered this twenty five years after Muhammad’s death and set it in the context of Muhammad hearing that a woman had risen to power in Iran.[viii] Mernissi attributes this and other misogynist hadiths to their narrators rather than to Muhammad, whom she regards as a feminist. Several narrators also disliked ‘Ā’isha and sought to undermine her leadership role. Her part in the revolt was used to support the claim that women involved in leadership would prove troublesome and socially disruptive.


‘Ā’isha herself contradicts their reports in some hadiths which she narrated. The distinguished scholar al-Zarkashī (d. 1392) collected these in The Accurate Account on Ā’isha’s Amendments to the Companions’ Narrations which fell into obscurity until rediscovered in the nineteenth century.[ix] Mernissi found evidence, too, that Abū Bakra and at least one other transmitter of misogynist hadiths were not entirely trustworthy. Abū Bakra had been flogged for committing perjury, which under classical criteria for authenticating hadith should have disqualified him as a transmitter.[x]


In her work, Wadud discusses in detail the Qur’anic verse 4:34, which is frequently cited to shut down discussion of Muslim women as leaders. It is also the verse that some Muslim men use to justify disciplining their wives by beating them. Wadud challenges how exegetes have applied two Qur’anic terms in ways that support the subjugation of women, namely daraja and faddala. Daraja (literally “degree, rank”) refers to God elevating some over others, such as men over women which has been implied by Qur’an 2:228, but Wadud interprets this as referring to how gaining knowledge and performing deeds can result in both women and men being “raised in rank.”[xi]


Faddala (“he preferred”) is the word used to justify men’s superiority over women but Wadud applies this to the responsibilities that men must shoulder in support of their wives during pregnancy and childrearing when this compensates for the unequal distribution of tasks that in this case is biologically determined.[xii] For Mawdudi, faddala means that women are inferior to men who are thus managers of their affairs.[xiii] Wadud also challenges how daraba has been interpreted as beat, pointing to other lexicon meanings such as to “set an example” or to “leave… on a journey.”[xiv]


Although some conservative Muslims continued to object to her premiership, Benazir served until August 6, 1990 when the President, alleging corruption and claiming that intervention was needed to improve law and order, dismissed her. However, in the general election of October 1993 the PPP won 86 seats, the largest number and Benazir became Prime Minister for a second term. On November 4, 1996 she was again dismissed by the President, Farooq Leghari, who, as had his predecessor, cited corruption. Later, a court found her guilty in absentia but that conviction was subsequently quashed. Following Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999, Benazir went into exile.


A ban on former Prime Ministers serving a second term appeared to end her political career. However, she negotiated an agreement with Musharraf that both withdrew PPP’s opposition to him standing for a third term, dropped all charges against her and allowed her to return to Pakistan in time to campaign for the 2008 election. On December 27, 2007, at a rally in Rawalpindi, an assassin opened fire and a bomb exploded killing her and more than twenty others and injuring a hundred. The PPP won the election.


A Progressive Political Thought


Rather than analyzing Benazir’s achievements and failures in office it is more appropriate for us to discuss her thinking on Islam and on the role of women. Benazir self-defined as a Muslim woman. She took the view that Islam neither treats women as inferior to men nor prohibits them from political leadership. She saw such views as reactionary and preferred what she called progressive interpretations. Islam, she said, offers women justice and equality. Fanatics and dictators were hijacking Islam.[xv] She defended the place of democracy in Muslim societies. Muslims who posit a clash of values between Islam and the West do so because they want to foment a violent confrontation between Muslims and the West. She saw tolerance, equality, justice, pluralism and reconciliation as foundational Islamic principles. Muhammad codified women’s rights and saw men and women as equals in society. Muslim scholars try to interject their interpretations between believers and God. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not blame woman for introducing sin into human affairs.


However, Benazir might have added that Muslim men have blamed a woman, ‘Ā’isha, for what they call the first fitna (revolt or act of sedition) and have since associated women with this. She cites such Qur’anic verses as 9:7 and 31:8 as affirming that men and women are equal in God’s sight. She prefers what she calls “conceptual” to “literal” interpretations. Literalists insist on amputation of the hand as the penalty for theft (Qur. 5:38–9). A conceptual interpreter would implement a deterrent but leave the thief’s hand intact.[xvi] Progressive Muslims see the process of interpretation as dynamic rather than static. Interpreters should be guided by the main themes of the Qur’an not by narrower agendas. Muhammad’s wives and other women among the first Muslims are important role models who made their opinions known. Men, she declares, not Islam, are against women leaders. Benazir commented on almost all Qur’anic verses that specifically concern women.


There is considerable overlap between Benazir on Islam and women and the writings of some feminist Muslim scholars. Her proposal that interpreters are guided by the main themes of the Qur’an overlaps with Leila Ahmed’s emphasis on the spirit but not always the letter of the Qur’an as egalitarian. While women played influential and even central roles in the early days of hadith collection, when Islam’s authoritative texts were compiled in the Abbasid period, male attitudes toward women had changed. She attributes this to the militarization of the caliphate and the easy availability of concubines captured in conquest that blurred the distinction between “woman” and “sexual object” although elite women, secluded, were treated differently. Women no longer created texts and androcentric assumptions were inscribed into the interpretive tradition. Rather than carrying the logic of the Qur’an’s gender reformation to its logical conclusion, men abandoned this and entrenched male superiority into social norms and legal rules. [xvii]


Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, a Muslim who teaches at a Christian Seminary, who self-describes as a Muslima theologian, sees in the Qur’an a call to destabilize social norms as we work toward liberation and equality.[xviii] The Sudanese reformer M. M. Taha (d. 1985) saw the general ethical verses from the Meccan period of Muhammad’s life, in which none of the verses that treat men and women differently appear, as God’s ideal. The Medinan verses, given by way of a pragmatic compromise with human nature, represent a descent rather than an ascent. The goal is to ascend again to the Meccan message. In his view, neither the veil, the sword, slavery or polygamy belonged to Islam’s original message. Practices such as differences in divorce, inheritance and testimony laws, where they exist in Muslim contexts, should be replaced by those that apply the spirit of the Meccan period.[xix]


Following Benazir’s Footsteps


Following Benazir’s first term in office, Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was elected as Prime Minister in Bangladesh where a woman also leads the main opposition party, the Awami League and has since served as Prime Minister. Founded as an Islamic party, the BNP has had support from Islamist parties including Jamaat-e-Islami. Islamic here rather than Islamist indicates that the party sees Islamic values as integral to national identity and to any policies it pursues but does not, per se, advocate in favor of sharia law.


Party founder, Zia-ur-Rahman, though, did remove “secularism” as one of the principles of state from the constitution since reinstated by the Awami League government (fifteenth Constitutional Amendment, 2011).[xx] Some conservatives in Bangladesh objected to Khaleda’s election on the same grounds that Benazir’s opponents had objected to her election especially members of Jamaat-e-Islami. When Bangladeshi Muslims voted for her they knew that her party was religiously oriented and allied with distinctly Islamist parties so presumably they did not see a faith-based obstacle to supporting a woman leaders. The Jamaat ended up with three seats in Khaleda’s cabinet. Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s second and current woman Prime Minister, heads a secular party but describes her policies as informed by Muhammad’s Medinan Charter, which she says endorses pluralism and grants non-Muslims and Muslims co-equal rights.[xxi] Two Sufi-affiliated parties support her government and one co-sponsored the petition that led to Jamaat’s deregistration as a political party. [xxii]


Megawati Sukarnoputri became President of Indonesia in 2001 after serving as Vice-President under Abdurrahman Wahid, whose followers considered him to be a living Sufi saint. His party was linked with the world’s largest Islamic organization, the Nahdlatul Islam, while she would nominate a conservative Muslim to the vice-presidency who had stood against her for the presidency. This time, the majority voted for a Muslim woman in preference to a conservative Muslim who, at least then, opposed women’s leadership choosing her as head of state even though Pakistan still restricts this to men. In Turkey, Tansu Çiller formed a partnership with a religious party and was deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government for a year after her premiership ended. The above suggests that, while some Muslims continue to oppose women in positions of leadership, this is not an issue for large numbers of Muslims who have voted for women leaders. Large numbers of women have also won election to local and national political bodies of which Tunisia is a leading example where they include members of the main religious party. There is no doubt that Benazir’s election in 1988 paved the way for those Muslim women who have risen to leadership since then. When women were permitted to stand in local elections for the first time in Saudi Arabia in 2015, seventeen women won seats. An article in the Arab News shortly soon after Benazir’s assassination called on Saudi women to familiarize themselves with her legacy and thinking and enter the political arena.[xxiii]


Nonetheless, when Benazir was first elected, the media reported that she had become the first Muslim woman leader of a state even as Muslim critics cried that this was anti-Islamic and contradicted nature. This spurred Mernissi to examine whether the claim that no Muslim woman had ruled from 623 to 1988 was actually true. She discovered, in neglected “yellowed pages of old books,” a different story.[xxiv] Although little known nor showcased, women have ruled in pre-modern times. Men have not monopolized the exercise of authority and power in Muslim societies. Mernissi’s research identified many of the forgotten queens of Islam, though their actual titles vary. Her headings in the aptly named The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1993) include “Fifteen Queens,” and “The Shit’ite Dynasty of Yemen”. Even her account is not exhaustive. Women also ruled the Indian state of Bhopal between 1819 and 1926 while wives and mothers of the nominal Ottoman rulers exercised effective power 1533 to 1656.


There is no evidence that, where Muslim women govern, populations become less pious or that the sun fails to shine. While there are Muslim states where it remains unthinkable that a woman would govern, the veil that previously kept women from public life is beginning to be drawn aside in other parts of Muslim-majority space.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Clinton Bennet, “The Pioneer of Female Muslim Leaders”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 89-99.

Online version:
Clinton Bennet, “The Pioneer of Female Muslim Leaders”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/pioneer-female-muslim-leaders-benazir-bhutto


[i] Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in National Parliaments,” (February 1, 2019).
[ii] John L. Esposito and Emad El-Din Shahin, Key Islamic Political Thinkers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
[iii] Sahīh al-Bukhārī, Kitāb al-fitan. Bāb 88, no. 7099. Bayrūt: Dār al-Sādir.
[iv] Rafiq Zakaria, Women and Politics in Islam: The Trial of Benazir. New York: New Horizons, 1990, p. 13.
[v] Abul A‘la Mawdudi, Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam. Lahore: Islamic Publications, 19722. See pp. 119–120. Women are “tender and plastic,” men are “tough and rigid.” Women’s “mental and physical state becomes unstable” once every month.
[vi] Mona Lena Krook, Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 70.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Fatima Mernissi, The veil and the male elite: a feminist interpretation of women's rights in Islam. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Brooks, 1991, p. 49.
[ix] Badr al-Dīn al-Zarkashī, Al-Ijāba li-īrād mā istadrakat-hu ‘Ā’isha ‘ala al-sahāba, edited by Saeed Al-Afghani. Bayrūt: al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 19702.
[x] Fatima Mernissi, The veil, p. 61.
[xi] Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 68–69.
[xii] Ibid., p. 73.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 71.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 76.
[xv] Benazir Bhutto, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West. New York: Harper, 2008, p. 19.
[xvi] Benazir Bhutto, “Politics and the Muslim Woman,” in Charles Kurzman (ed.), Liberal Islam: a sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 107–11.
[xvii] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Theological Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
[xviii] Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, Divine words, female voices: Muslima explorations in comparative feminist theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 154.
[xix] Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, The Second Message of Islam. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987.
[xx] This also raised the number of reserved seats in Parliament for women from 45 to 50.
[xxi] See Clinton Bennett, “Sufis as Shapers of Pluralist Political Culture: The Examples of Bangladesh and Indonesia,” in Clinton Bennett and Sarwar Alam (eds.), Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy, Sheffield: Equinox, 2017, p. 135.
[xxii] High Court Verdict, August 1, 2013.
[xxiii] Maha al-Hujailan, “Benazir Bhutto: a role model for all Muslim women,” Arab News, January 11, 2008. Available at
[xxiv] Fatima Mernissi, The forgotten Queens of Islam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 3.