Benazir Bhutto: “Iron Lady of the East”

The beginning of political career

Benazir Bhutto was born into a very influential family: her father’s ancestors were the princes of the province of Sindh, her grandfather Shah Nawaz once headed the government of Pakistan. She was the eldest child in the family, and her father doted on her: she studied at the best Catholic schools in Karachi, under the guidance of her father Benazir studied Islam, the works of Lenin and books about Napoleon.

Zulfikar encouraged his daughter’s desire for knowledge and independence in every possible way: for example, when at the age of 12 her mother put on a veil on Benazir, as befits a decent girl from a Muslim family, he insisted that the daughter herself make a choice – to wear it or not. “Islam is not a religion of violence and Benazir knows it. Everyone has their own path and their own choice!” – he said. Benazir spent the evening in her room meditating on her father’s words. And in the morning she went to school without a veil and never wore it again, only covering her head with an elegant scarf as a tribute to the traditions of her country. Benazir always remembered this incident when she spoke about her father.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became president of Pakistan in 1971 and began to introduce his daughter to political life. The most acute foreign policy problem was the unresolved issue of the border between India and Pakistan, the two peoples were constantly in conflict. For negotiations in India in 1972, father and daughter flew together. There, Benazir met Indira Gandhi, talked with her for a long time in an informal setting. The results of the negotiations were some positive developments, which were finally fixed already during the reign of Benazir.

The coup d’etat

In 1977, a coup d’état took place in Pakistan, Zulfikar was overthrown and, after two years of an exhausting trial, he was executed. The widow and daughter of the former leader of the country became the head of the People’s Movement, which called for a fight against the usurper Zia al-Haq. Benazir and his mother were arrested.

If an elderly woman was spared and sent under house arrest, then Benazir knew all the hardships of imprisonment. In the summer heat, her cell turned into a real hell. “The sun heated the camera so that my skin was covered with burns,” she later wrote in her autobiography. “I couldn’t breathe, the air was so hot there.” At night, earthworms, mosquitoes, spiders crawled out of their shelters. Hiding from insects, Bhutto covered her head with a heavy prison blanket and threw it off when it became completely impossible to breathe. Where did this young woman draw strength at that time? It remained a mystery to herself, too, but even then Benazir constantly thought about her country and the people who were cornered by the dictatorship of al-Haq.

In 1984, Benazir managed to break out of prison thanks to the intervention of Western peacekeepers. Bhutto’s triumphant march through European countries began: she, exhausted after prison, met with leaders of other states, gave numerous interviews and press conferences, during which she openly challenged the regime in Pakistan. Her courage and determination were admired by many, and the Pakistani dictator himself realized what a strong and principled opponent he had. In 1986, martial law in Pakistan was lifted, and Benazir returned victorious to her native country.

In 1987, she married Asif Ali Zarardi, who also came from a very influential family in Sindh. Spiteful critics claimed that this was a marriage of convenience, but Benazir saw her companion and support in her husband.

At this time, Zia al-Haq reintroduces martial law in the country and dissolves the cabinet of ministers. Benazir cannot stand aside and – although she has not yet recovered from the difficult birth of her first child – enters the political struggle.

By chance, the dictator Zia al-Haq dies in a plane crash: a bomb was blown up in his plane. In his death, many saw a contract killing – they accused Benazir and her brother Murtaza of involvement, even Bhutto’s mother.

 The power struggle has also fallen

In 1989, Bhutto became the prime minister of Pakistan, and this was a historic event of grandiose proportions: for the first time in a Muslim country, a woman headed the government. Benazir began her premier term with complete liberalization: she granted self-government to universities and student organizations, abolished control over the media, and released political prisoners.

Having received an excellent European education and being brought up in liberal traditions, Bhutto defended the rights of women, which went against the traditional culture of Pakistan. First of all, she proclaimed freedom of choice: whether it was the right to wear or not to wear a veil, or to realize herself not only as the guardian of the hearth.

Benazir honored and respected the traditions of her country and Islam, but at the same time she protested against what had long since become obsolete and hindered the further development of the country. So, she often and openly emphasized that she was a vegetarian: “A vegetarian diet gives me strength for my political achievements. Thanks to plant foods, my head is free from heavy thoughts, I myself am more calm and balanced, ”she said in an interview. Moreover, Benazir insisted that any Muslim can refuse animal food, and the “lethal” energy of meat products only increases aggression.

Naturally, such statements and democratic steps caused discontent among the Islamists, whose influence increased in Pakistan in the early 1990s. But Benazir was fearless. She resolutely went for rapprochement and cooperation with Russia in the fight against drug trafficking, freed the Russian military, who were held captive after the Afghan campaign. 

Despite the positive changes in foreign and domestic policy, the prime minister’s office was often accused of corruption, and Benazir herself began to make mistakes and commit rash acts. In 1990, Pakistani President Ghulam Khan fired Bhutto’s entire cabinet. But this did not break Benazir’s will: in 1993, she reappeared on the political arena and received the prime minister’s chair after she merged her party with the conservative wing of the government.

In 1996, she becomes the most popular politician of the year and, it seems, is not going to stop there: reforms again, decisive steps in the field of democratic freedoms. During her second premier term, illiteracy among the population decreased by almost a third, water was supplied to many mountainous regions, children received free medical care, and the fight against childhood diseases began.

But again, corruption among her entourage prevented the ambitious plans of the woman: her husband was accused of taking bribes, her brother was arrested on charges of state fraud. Bhutto herself was forced to leave the country and go into exile in Dubai. In 2003, the international court found the charges of blackmail and bribes valid, all of Bhutto’s accounts were frozen. But, despite this, she led an active political life outside of Pakistan: she lectured, gave interviews and organized press tours in support of her party.

Triumphant return and terrorist attack

In 2007, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was the first to approach the disgraced politician, dropped all charges of corruption and bribes, and allowed him to return to the country. To deal with the rise of extremism in Pakistan, he needed a strong ally. Given the popularity of Benazir in her native country, her candidacy was the best fit. Moreover, Washington also supported Bhutto’s policy, which made her an indispensable mediator in the foreign policy dialogue.

Back in Pakistan, Bhutto became very aggressive in the political struggle. In November 2007, Pervez Musharraf introduced martial law in the country, explaining that rampant extremism is leading the country to the abyss and this can only be stopped by radical methods. Benazir categorically disagreed with this and at one of the rallies she made a statement about the need for the resignation of the president. Soon she was taken under house arrest, but continued to actively oppose the existing regime.

“Pervez Musharraf is an obstacle to the development of democracy in our country. I don’t see the point in continuing to cooperate with him and I don’t see the point of my work under his leadership,” she made such a loud statement at a rally in the city of Rawalpindi on December 27. Before leaving, Benazir looked out of the hatch of her armored car and immediately received two bullets in the neck and chest – she never wore bulletproof vests. This was followed by a suicide bombing, which drove as close as possible to her car on a moped. Bhutto died from a severe concussion, a suicide bombing claimed the lives of more than 20 people.

This murder stirred up the public. The leaders of many countries condemned the Musharraf regime and expressed their condolences to the entire Pakistani people. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took the death of Bhutto as a personal tragedy, while speaking on Israeli television, he admired the courage and determination of the “iron lady of the East”, stressing that he saw in her the link between the Muslim worlds and Israel.

US President George W. Bush, speaking with an official statement, called this terrorist act “despicable”. Pakistani President Musharraf himself found himself in a very difficult situation: the protests of Benazir’s supporters escalated into riots, the crowd shouted slogans “Down with the murderer of Musharraf!”

On December 28, Benazir Bhutto was buried in her family estate in the province of Sindh, next to the grave of her father.

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