Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Benazir Bhutto: Daughter of the East

An admiration piece praising the first woman leader in Pakistan who served as the nation’s 11th and 13th Prime Minister as we try to understand the tragedy of her assassination.

Written by Her Royal Highness: Sultanah Hajjah Kalsom, The Sultanah of Pahang.

Edna St. Vincent Millay may very well have been talking about Benazir Bhutto, first woman leader of a Muslim nation in 1988 at the young age of 35, voted in by the Pakistani masses during their first open election in a decade. I have been privileged to know her, and it gives me great pleasure to write about this incredible beacon of hope, who changed many lives, and gave Pakistani women a new confidence and belief in themselves, like never before.

Though Benazir Bhutto had the privileged luxury of a rich family, given the opportunity to study in Harvard’s Radcliffe College from the time she was 16, to going on and getting a second degree from Oxford, life had never been easy for the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party(PPP) and Prime Minister of Pakistan(1973-1977). But she scorned easy, because, for all her breeding and cultivation, the impetuous young woman preferred running headlong at life. David Ignatius from Oxford remembers, “She was wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt, the one with the sassy tongue sticking out, and I recall thinking that Pakistani politics would never be the same once she returned home.”

After General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq seized power in Pakistan in a military coup in 1977, Zulfikar Bhutto was tried and executed. Benazir Bhutto endured frequent house arrests during the next seven years. Two of her brothers, who had formed an underground organisation to resist the military dictatorship, were murdered. In 1984, she fled to England, where she became head of her father’s former party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). In 1988, when President Zia died, leaving a power vacuum, she returned to Pakistan and launched a nationwide campaign for open elections in which she won.

The journey to winning, was not easy. “I found that a whole series of people opposed me simply on the grounds that I was a woman. The clerics took to the mosque saying that Pakistan had thrown itself outside the Muslim world and the Muslim umma by voting for a woman, that a woman had usurped a man’s place in the Islamic society.”

Many on Pakistan’s religious right felt that women should be restricted to activities within the home, a belief reinforced during General Zia’s eleven-year reign. The illiteracy rate among women in Pakistan far exceeded that of men, and the rate at which women died in childbirth was one of the highest in the world. Staggering Illiteracy and poverty were rampant. The heroin trade, under General Zia’s rule, had grown into a multi-million dollar industry which produced over a million heroin addicts in Pakistan.

But Benazir Bhutto was fearless in taking on the challenge to change the status quo. She had an unshakable belief that Pakistan should embrace the modern world with the same confidence and courage that she had. She believed in democracy, freedom and openness – not as slogans, but as a way of life that would change the life of Pakistanis for the better. Hers has perhaps been the most potent Pakistani voice for liberalism, tolerance and change.

And the former President of Oxford’s Debate Club was pretty vocal about her beliefs in democracy.

“I believe that democracies do not go to war; that’s the lesson of history, and I think that a democratic Pakistan is the world community’s best guarantee of stability in Asia.”

To make peace, one must be an uncompromising leader. To make peace, one must also embody compromise. And to push for peace is ultimately a personal sacrifice, for leadership is not easy. It is born of a passion, and it is a commitment. Leadership is a commitment to an idea, to a dream, and to a vision of what can be. And my dream is for my land and my people to cease fighting and allow our children to reach their full potential regardless of sex, status, or belief.

Leadership is to do what is right by educating and inspiring an electorate, empathising with the moods, needs, wants, and aspirations of humanity. Making peace is about bringing the teeming conflicts of society to a minimal point of consensus. It is about painting a new vision on the canvas of a nation’s political history.

Ultimately, leadership is about the strength of one’s convictions, the ability to endure the punches, and the energy to promote an idea. And I have found that those who do achieve peace never acquiesce to obstacles, especially those constructed of bigotry, intolerance, and inflexible tradition.

What I want more than anything is for Pakistan to prosper as we make a transition to democracy.”

Not merely talk, Benazir Bhutto was an unstoppable woman of action. In 1988, on the last night of the election campaign, Christopher Hitchens, British author describes her, “Taking the wheel of a jeep and scorning all bodyguards, she set off with me on a hair-raising tour of the Karachi slums. Every now and then, she would get out, climb on the roof of the jeep with a bullhorn, and harangue the mob that pressed in close enough to turn the vehicle over. On the following day, her Pakistan Peoples Party won in a landslide, making her, at the age of 35, the first woman to be elected the leader of a Muslim country.”

She took threats to her life head-on, as was her signature style. In 2007, just months before her assassination, she declared “I fully understand the men behind Al Qaeda. They have tried to assassinate me twice before. The Pakistan People’s Party and I represent everything they fear the most — moderation, democracy, equality for women, information, and technology. We represent the future of a modern Pakistan, a future that has no place in it for ignorance, intolerance, and terrorism.”

Benazir’s killers targeted her precisely because she was modern, liberal and unafraid.

Not that she was afraid of death. She spoke of it often.

“I don’t fear death. I remember my last meeting with my father when he told me, “You know, tonight when I will be killed, my mother and my father will be waiting for me.” It makes me weepy… but I don’t think it can happen unless God wants it to happen because so many people have tried to kill me……But I know death comes. I’ve seen too much death, young death.

The forces of moderation and democracy must, and will, prevail against extremism and dictatorship. I will not be intimidated. I will step out on the tarmac in Karachi not to complete a journey, but to begin one. Despite threats of death, I will not acquiesce to tyranny, but rather lead the fight against it.”

The real fear she had, I think, was that she might fail in her mission, to fulfil the destiny she had chosen. “A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for,” she retorted as she tirelessly threw herself into campaign after campaign, trying to make a difference in her beloved country.

She believed that Pakistan was at a crossroads, that she could help turn back the years of dictatorship, fundamentalism, and economic decline. It pained her that the government was using the judicial authorities to score political points, that the military wanted a system that protected its own policies and privileges, and not those of the people.

She told everyone that they could imprison exile or even kill her, but that they could not kill her ideas. She wanted to give her people peace, security, dignity, and the opportunity to progress.

“My father always would say, ‘My daughter will go into politics. My daughter will become prime minister,’ but it’s not what I wanted to do. I would say, ‘No, Papa, I will never go into politics.’ As I’ve said before, this is not the life I chose; it chose me… But I accepted the responsibility and I’ve never wavered in my commitment…

…It would be so nice to have the luxury just to laze. So nice not to have to always get up and get dressed for some occasion, always having to move from here to there, where everything is scheduled and even having lunch with my kids on their Easter break has to be slotted in. Maybe one day…”

That one day never came for Benazir Bhutto, Daughter of The East.

Benazir Bhutto said, “Life is too short to spend worrying about people who oppose you.” True to her words, she went out in a blaze, as she lived her life, triumphantly rallying her people to progress until the final dying moments. Her candle burnt at both ends, and for a brief period of time, Pakistan and her men and women basked in the glory and hope of her lovely light. I am one of those touched by her light and I too share her dream for a united, integrated, peaceful, democratic and prosperous Pakistan soon. We have Benazir‘s light to guide us towards it, in the meantime.

Contributor Profile

HRH Sultanah Hajjah Kalsom

The Sultanah of Pahang

HRH The Sultanah of Pahang, Sultanah Hajjah Kalsom is an active supporter of many worthy charitable causes, using her royal position to raise awareness on a number of issues that affect the underprivileged, in particular women and children, in the state of Pahang and Malaysia as a whole. For instance, she is the Patron of the OrphanCARE Foundation, which set up Malaysia’s first baby hatch for mothers who are unable to take care of their children. In addition, she has also lent her name to the Yayasan Sri Kencana Kalsom – a foundation which provides shelter for women who have been victims of domestic abuse. Tuanku was also the patron of the PASSIONS Charity Ball held in 2008, which brought in international beauty queens who helped raise RM100,000 for the IJN Heart Foundation.

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