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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Benazir Bhutto: A Phoenix that rose from Ashes

Benazir Bhutto, a woman of courage, boldness, and resilience who fought against the toxic mindset of people on all fronts. Standing among the world's most prominent leaders she built an image for Pakistan that brought the country back in the world's good books.

Opinion |

27th December is marked every year as the death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto – one of the greatest leaders of the world and the first Muslim woman to head an Islamic country. She was an epitome of courage, resoluteness, steadfastness, and resilience. Her intrepidity is eulogized not only by his diehard ideologues but also by her worst detractors. Her life is characterized by the indefatigable struggle against the despotic forces of dictatorship and fascism. She left no stone unturned to get democratic ethos entrenched in the political, social and economic order of the country.

She carried forward the legacy of populism as inculcated by her great father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in such an amazing way that people become so deeply infatuated with her that the eyes of every Pakistani wept ocean of tears over her untimely and painful assassination. Her cold-blooded murder shook rank and file of Pakistani masses and her unforgettable and charismatic persona would continue to impress the generations to come.

Benazir Bhutto was born June 21, 1953, the first of four children in a well-to-do landowning family of the province of Sindh. She grew up in surroundings littered with the trappings and perks of Pakistan’s post-colonial, English-speaking elite. She was attended to by an English governess, called by her nickname, “Pinkie,” due to her rosy complexion and enrolled in Roman Catholic convent school.

She paid a price for her promise. Over the next five years, with the Pakistan People’s Party outlawed, Bhutto was in and out of detention, sometimes at home, under house arrest, or in prison, under harrowing conditions

While at 16, she had to leave for Redcliff College, Harvard University for which she was not mentally prepared. “I cried and cried and cried because I had never walked to classes in my life before,” she once told an interviewer. “I’d always been driven to school in a car and picked up in a car, and here I had to walk and walk and walk. It was cold, bitterly cold, and I hated it … but it forced me to grow up. “

From Harvard, she went on to Oxford University to study politics, philosophy, and economics, an arena where she honed her debating skills by becoming the first foreign woman to be elected president of the prestigious Oxford Union. She was a brilliant student and excelled in oratory at Harvard and Oxford, inspiring not just minds but also connecting hearts — it was she who introduced the incumbent British Prime Minister Theresa May to Philip May who would become her husband.

A shrewd politician and a committed family woman, Benazir had a legacy that refused to die down with her; As a veteran journalist Hasan Mujtaba commented in his poem, “Tum zinda hokar Murda ho/Wo Murda hokar Zinda hai (You are already dead while you live/She is alive even after her death).

Read more: A Memory of Greatness: Benazir Bhutto’s at UNGA Addressing Kashmir Issue

After completion of her studies, she aspired to be a diplomat. But circumstance led her to continue her father’s legacy as a political leader.  Soon after her return, in 1977, her father was ousted as prime minister in a military coup and imprisoned, and martial law was declared. Two years later, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed, which became the defining moment in Benazir’s life, launching her full-bore into politics. “I told him on my oath in his death cell, I would carry on his work,” Benazir later said.

She paid a price for her promise. Over the next five years, with the Pakistan People’s Party outlawed, Bhutto was in and out of detention, sometimes at home, under house arrest, or in prison, under harrowing conditions.

She was allowed to leave Pakistan in 1984 for the treatment of a serious ear infection. She settled in London, but the saga of her family’s life continued with the mysterious death of one of her two brothers at his home on the French Riviera. Some accounts suggested that he had been poisoned, which Bhutto believed to be the handiwork of Pakistani agents.

Benazir faced constant character assassination, perpetual resistance from the mullahs who would try to stir up the public emotions by proclaiming that a government headed by a woman was un-Islamic

When martial law in Pakistan was lifted in December 1985, Bhutto felt the time had come to return to her homeland. Her homecoming in April 1986, in the ancient city of Lahore, was tumultuous, celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who thronged the streets and forced her motorcade to slow to such a crawl that it took 10 hours to travel eight miles.

In her elegant British-inflected accent, she called on Zia ul-Haq to resign, saying that it was “a bad year for dictators” — a reference to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti. The momentum of her welcome propelled her on a national tour and then her party to victory in parliamentary elections in November 1988.

The government, however, proved difficult for both of Bhutto’s terms as prime minister, from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996. She was credited with ending media restrictions and speaking out for women’s rights, but she was constrained by the military and the mullahs, Pakistan’s two most powerful institutions.

Benazir faced constant character assassination, perpetual resistance from the mullahs who would try to stir up the public emotions by proclaiming that a government headed by a woman was un-Islamic and persistent refusal by army generals to salute a female prime minister. Yet she managed to leave behind a legacy of commitment to democracy, economic empowerment of the downtrodden and social equality that is rivaled by only the one left by her father.

Read more: Benazir Bhutto: An Intangible Legacy

During her tenure, she strived hard to elevate the status of Pakistani women. She employed all of her resources for the betterment of womenfolk.  She established first women bank, a separate ministry for women affairs, inducted female judges in judiciary, erected a separate police station for women, directed for five percent quota for women in every government department, set up  Muslim women’s Parliamentary Union, established women’s sport’s Board and restored women’s seats in national and provincial assemblies.

Inter alia, Benazir had to face many plots, orchestrated by her adversaries to fail her government. Allegations of corruption were apportioned on her that resulted in the loss of her government twice. Her husband, too, because of alleged corruption was nicknamed as “Mr. 10 Percent”. The irony was that her husband had to spend eight years in prison without a formal conviction.

Bhutto’s reputation was further damaged by the assassination of her brother Murtaza Bhutto during her own regime which some believe was engineered if not by her but by her husband Asif Ali Zardari since her brother coveted for the leadership of his father’s bequeathed party(PPP).

However, even after her death, she continues to reign our hearts and minds regardless of the fact that she led a quite unusual life. As she was once quoted to have said, “I have led an unusual life. I have buried a father killed at age 50 and two brothers killed in the prime of their lives. I raised my children as a single mother when my husband was arrested and held for eight years without a conviction — a hostage to my political career.”

Read more: Benazir Bhutto: Pakistan’s Iron Lady

Benazir was undoubtedly a woman of great achievements. Some of her achievements came to limelight and were acknowledged even after her death—as is the case with a posthumous United Nations Human Rights Prize conferred on her in 2008.

She was like a phoenix that rose from the ashes time and again. She proved herself as an iron lady through her tragic death in a suicide blast at the height of her election campaign in 2007. She, despite, having life threats did not falter and continued her struggle with unwavering determination to achieve her ideals. Hence, a lesson of steadfastness, courage, and boldness can be learned from her glorious life.

Let me conclude by quoting Stephen Cohen a south Asia expert at the brooking institution who once remarked: “ despite her shortcomings, “ what will remain is a commitment to democracy—to moderate, centrist values, tolerance, a role for women and accommodation with India. She helped create a new identity for Pakistan as a place where women could be prime minister.”

Abdul Rasool Syed Legal Practitioner & columnist based in Quetta.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.