Wednesday, October 8, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan | Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin‘s foray into international affairs at the United Nations has made the Alaska governor the most famous woman in Pakistan.

The reason: President Asif Ali Zardari’s purported flirtation with Mrs. Palin, who showed up at the annual U.N. General Assembly session last month to schmooze with world leaders.

During a five-minute photo-op, Mr. Zardari described Mrs. Palin as “gorgeous.”

More than two weeks later, militant mullahs and Pakistani feminists — who rarely agree on anything — remain outraged at Mr. Zardari’s behavior.

Even the most ordinary Pakistanis know who Mrs. Palin is, or at least what she looks like.


As Tina Fey soars, Sarah Palin struggles

“I don’t know her name or what she does but I think Benazir Bhutto was more beautiful,” said Ahmed Zafar, a rickshaw driver in Lahore. Mrs. Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated in December, was Mr. Zardari’s wife.

The much-discussed meeting in New York began with a jubilant Mr. Zardari eagerly approaching Mrs. Palin.

Click here to watch video of the meeting.

His greeting to the Alaska governor — described as “overly-friendly” by the media pundits in print, television and in blogs — prompted one of Pakistan’s most radical clerics to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, condemning Mr. Zardari’s behavior.

Mrs. Bhutto’s widower told Mrs. Palin that she is “even more gorgeous in life” and said he understood why “America is crazy about you.”

A fatwa by Abdul Ghafar of Islamabad’s Red Mosque declared Mr. Zardari’s behavior to be un-Islamic because it included “indecent gestures, filthy remarks and repeated praise of a non-Muslim woman in a short skirt.” Unlike many fatwas from radical clerics, it stopped short of calling for Mr. Zardari’s death.

Mr. Ghafar is a relative of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, leader of the Red Mosque who died during week-long gun battle in July 2007 between government forces and militants holed up in the landmark structure in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s feminists appear equally outraged.

“It’s completely unbecoming of a head of state to act in this manner,” said Rubina Saigol, a member of the Women Action Forum.

“I don’t understand what he was trying to achieve and why he would behave in this manner.”

Muneeza Hashmi, a media critic and a strong proponent of women’s rights in Pakistan, was even more vocal in expressing her displeasure at the president’s conduct.

“I felt ashamed and embarrassed,” she said. “He was representing my country and he was representing me when he went there, and I felt like burying my head in the sand.”

The meeting has become the butt of jokes.

“Just imagine Sarah Palin divorces her current husband and marries Asif Zardari,” says one widely circulated telephone text message. “Then Palin becomes Vice President of USA. Then Zardari kills Palin, changes the will which henceforth says, ‘Zardari will become the President of USA if I die. And eventually Zardari becomes President of USA six months after Palin’s death.’”

Facebook groups are busy advising the president on what steps to take next. “Zardari should marry Sarah Palin for the sake of world peace” and to “stop the incursion of U.S. forces in Pakistan,” one post says.

Jokes aside, Mehnaz Rafi, a former member of the national assembly and a prominent women’s rights activist, said Mr. Zardari’s remarks were extremely unfair to the woman who may become America’s next vice-president.

“His comments were so sexist,” she said. “He didn’t take into account her knowledge or abilities — he was only viewing her as a beautiful woman.”

Many newspaper columnists have pointed out a fixture of Pakistan’s male-dominated political culture: Mr. Zardari is not the first president to flirt.

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz used to boast there wasn’t a woman he could not seduce.

But his efforts to win over the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during one meeting badly flopped.

“There was this test of wills where he was trying to use all his charms on her as a woman, and she just basically stared him down,” Miss Rice’s biographer Marcus Marby recalled later. “By the end of the meeting, he was babbling.”

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