Remembering Shaheed Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto would have turned 71 today. The slain leader was not only a role model for women in Pakistan, but epitomized what it meant to stand for democratic principles and to lead by example.

Remembering Shaheed Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto would have turned 71 years old today, on June 21st 2024. 

On this occasion we cherish her memories as a charismatic political leader, who became a role model not only for women in Pakistan, but for women across the world. 

Her many achievements were unprecedented: she was the first Asian woman to be elected president of the Oxford Union, the youngest and first woman prime minister of Pakistan and the Muslim world.

Victoria Schofield, in her book The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto, writes: “After Benazir Bhutto was elected the President of the Oxford Union, a journalist from a London Daily had come to interview her about her future plans. The headline of the article was: No politics for the premier’s daughter. Benazir was not intending to become a politician but would be joining Pakistan’s Foreign Service, she had told the journalist.”

But destiny had something else in mind for Benazir Bhutto. When her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratic government was overthrown and martial law was imposed by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq, Benazir Bhutto and her entire family were viciously victimized. After returning from the freedoms of the Oxford University, Benazir spent six years of her youthful life in jail. In and out of court rooms and prison, physically deprived and mentally tortured after having lost her father at the gallows, subjected to solitary confinement in the sweltering heat of the Sukkur jail, she still did not cave in.

Begum Nusrat Bhutto, the former first lady, was incarcerated in class C barracks, on the orders of General Zia-ul-Haq. Thousands of PPP workers and supporters were jailed, whilst the dictator unleashed inhuman and brutal atrocities on political workers, journalists and writers. Benazir Bhutto and the workers of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, refused to surrender to General Zia-ul-Haq. 

Benazir was only 35 when she eventually took the oath of office as Prime Minister. Begrudgingly, the reins of government were ostensibly handed over to her by Zia’s successors and cronies. However by this time, Zia’s 11-year long brutal dictatorship had already eroded every aspect of democratic culture, leaving behind a rigid, extremist, pseudo-Islamized, conservative patriarchal state and society as his legacy.

Even the army generals who were promoted after Zia’s death did not find it easy to salute a female prime minister, and would visibly squirm when the occasion arose.

As soon as Benazir Bhutto took over, she started projecting a softer image of Pakistan to the world. Inspite of severe opposition from the military and religious sectors of society, she commenced the undoing of the harsh measures of martial law. 

Under her watch, the judiciary commuted several death sentences into life imprisonment, also banning corporal punishments such as lashing and public hangings. 

Soon after assuming office, Benazir Bhutto’s generous heart ensured that all political prisoners were granted clemency. Her government immediately lifted the bans on student unions, trade unions and NGOs; the press and media were given freedom and censorship was completely lifted. Human rights defenders and women rights activists were provided an enabling environment to work without any restrictions. Women’s rights and women’s empowerment were Benazir Bhutto’s top most priority. A separate ministry of human rights and ministry for women’s development were formed and many women were included in her cabinet. 

The PPP's government under Benazir Bhutto’s leadership took many initiatives for women. Women’s Studies programs were introduced in public sector universities for the first time. The First Women’s Bank was established to give credit to enterprising women and women’s sports were encouraged and women’s police stations were established for the first time. Women were also recruited in the superior courts for the first time. The Lady Health Worker’s Program that was set up , under PPP rule, later become the backbone of the family healthcare system across Pakistan. 

During her tenure, Benazir also focused on solving the energy crises through public private partnership. More than eighteen thousand villages were provided electricity connections. This was all done during her two all too brief stints in office - 1988-90, and 1993-96 - and each time, her elected government was dismissed on falsified grounds. 

During her premiership, relations with India improved considerably. Rajiv Gandhi twice visited Pakistan and both leaders made a breakthrough on many crucial matters, including agreeing on a new roadmap to peace.

During her all too brief tenures Benazir Bhutto faced non-stop harassment and character assassination by the establishment, her male opponents and religious parties. Through print and electronic media they relentlessly ran sponsored campaigns deprecating her. 

She was once quoted to have said, “I have led an unusual life. I have buried a father killed at the age of 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 — he was a hostage to my political career.”

Benazir Bhutto was not only a brilliant democratic leader, but a highly committed daughter, wife and mother. She fulfilled the commitment that she made to her father of fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, poor masses. She took care of her mother who lost her husband and two sons in their prime, and suffered cruel treatment by Zia and his cronies. She proved that a woman led government could still perform the duties of a mother and wife. She campaigned for election in 1988 while she was pregnant and gave birth to Bilawal, and gave birth to her daughter Bakhtawar whilst she was prime minister. She was the first head of government in recorded history to give birth while in office. New Zealand's former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern became the second elected head of government to give birth in office.

She was and continues to be an immense source of courage and inspiration to the millions of women and downtrodden people of Pakistan. She proved that through political, democratic struggle and a spirit of reconciliation, even dictators like Pervaiz Musharraf could be defeated and democracy could be restored.

We are confident her son chairman Bilawal Bhutto and daughter Aseefa will continue the legacy of their mother.

Happy Birthday Shaheed Muhtarma Benazir, you will forever live on in our hearts.