Benazir Bhutto

Reading Barry Gewen's piece on two women who have resisted Islamicist totalitarianism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji, my mind drifted to another woman who had stood up for secular values and was eventually murdered. Benazir Bhutto died last December and her death prompted this obituary.

Benazir Bhutto

She had been a student at Oxford, eventually becoming the president of the Student’s Union there. Having been in Oxford University on a few occasions I felt that the sights and streets that I had known were familiar to her as well. While I and many others languished in the H Blocks in the summer of 1981 in the midst of a tenacious hunger strike she was in a Pakistani prison, also a political prisoner. These vignettes helped flesh her out in my mind as a person rather than some abstract entity termed a politician.

When Benazir Bhutto’s father was hauled from his cell and unceremoniously hanged by Zia ul-Haq, the shock felt in my own cell revisited on the news of her murder. In some ways her premature death was more expected. Since her return from exile to Pakistan she seemed a strong candidate for assassination. Her father, I felt, would escape the noose. But that was to misunderstand the malignancy that permeated the mind of his killer, President Zia. Benazir Bhutto’s death lends something of the ‘Kennedy curse’ to her family history. She had earlier lost two brothers to deaths described by the Guardian as having occurred in murky circumstances.

Maybe it was fortuitous rather than planned that her assassins should strike in Rawalpindi close to the site of her father’s own judicial murder. There was the emission of an eerie punitive symbolism – a warning that there are some areas that brook no trespass. For Benazir Bhutto the ‘verboten’ signs were everywhere after many years exile, much of it in London. Theocratic fascists had threatened to end her life and were the suspects for the October mass murder inflicted by nihilist bombers as she made her way from Karachi’s International Airport on her return from exile. They could not brook her gender, secularism, or democratic discourse.

Groomed by her father for politics from the age of 9 Benazir was thrust into role as leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party upon his arrest in 1977.
My father was the Prime Minister of Pakistan; my grandfather had been in politics too. However my own inclination was for a job other than politics. I wanted to be a diplomat, perhaps do some journalism, certainly not politics. But when my father was imprisoned, then assassinated, I had no other choice but to continue in the work that he had started because so many of his followers wanted me to do so.

Subsequent to the murder of her father tension increased between the army and the Pakistan People’s Party. Party members were hunted down by the military and killed. Benazir campaigned incessantly against Zia and was often detained under house arrest as a result. Her tribulations would be many. Apart from losing her father to judicial assassination, there was imprisonment, exile and legal battles; her husband had been jailed and she had been tear-gassed while pregnant with one of her children.

Debate has for long taken place over the nature of her marriage, some suggesting it was based on realpolitik rather than love. Despite being in many ways a modern woman she had wed her husband as part of an arranged marriage. Without a husband to ‘rule’ over her and keep her in line it was suspected that the electorate might not have tolerated her as a leader of the nation.

As distasteful as the concept of arranged marriages might be, as a political formula it will have admirers who will contend that in the case of Benazir it worked. At the same time it worked against her as she was forever deemed guilty by association, her husband’s history of sleaze and venality leaving her susceptible to charges that she must have been in on his act.

Having returned to Pakistan in 1986 to give leadership on the ground to the Pakistan People’s Party it was a mere two short years before she was swept to power at the age of 35 despite the opposition of the clerics who resorted to taunting her that she had ‘sinned’ abroad by dating men. That she was the first female prime minister of a Muslim country must have set their theocratic minds alight with burning hatred.

She barely lasted two years before the country’s military ousted her under the cloak of presidential decree – the charge, a failure to stem the flow of ethnic violence and corruption. Her husband’s business affairs had tainted her regime with corruption. The clerics hated her, the military conspired against her and women felt she never delivered on her promise to improve their rights. While more progressive on human rights than her predecessors, coupled with a willingness to tone down the amplifications of the country’s religious bigots, her critics argue that she made much less progress in both areas than she claimed. To compound her difficulties she ran up large amounts of foreign debt.

She returned to power in the early 1990s but again her enemies homed in on her husband’s business affairs to undermine her credibility. Alongside the charge of nepotism stood that of undermining the country’s justice system. By 1996 she was out again, once more ousted by the armed forces. Convicted of fraud in absentia she later availed of a corruption amnesty issued by Pervez Musharraf, to re-enter Pakistan in what was to prove a fatal move.

Many within her own party resented any d├ętente between her and Musharraf, believing that she had sleighted the memory of her murdered father by supping with the military institution that had ended his life. This was hinged to other misgivings that although the US war criminal Henry Kissinger had promised her father a terrible end if Pakistan under his leadership pursued the nuclear option Benazir had began to politically date US power.

The writer Arianna Huffington described Benazir Bhutto her as fearlessness epitomized. It was a quality detested by those whose power rests on the rule of fear. Fear cannot coexist with those able to overcome it. And so it killed her.



  1. Interesting link from the BBC today which links senior cops, the former President of Pakistan and Al Qaida to the killing of Benazir Bhutto.

  2. Reading Imran Khan's autobiography at the minute and he is not over complimentary of Benazir