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Most Influential Feminists- Benazir Bhutto

Updated on September 14, 2013

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Who is Benazir Bhutto?

Though many Americans often draw a blank when confronted with the name Benazir Bhutto, to those interested in the Middle East, or women’s rights, the name elicits an entirely different reaction of fond remembrance. Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim country on December 2, 1988 when she accepted the role in Pakistan as the head of the leading political party in the country; with this position, she became a champion of human and women’s rights, industrialized her country, and defied the expectations of many. Benazir Bhutto: Daughter of Destiny, an autobiography, tells the story of her life which portrays her remarkable traits that allowed her to persevere despite the constant threats and perils she faced as such a controversial and influential figure.

A Young Bhutto

The Start of an Influential Feminist

Born to an incredibly influential family in a small province called Karachi, Bhutto came into the world already fully equipped with the means to become a powerful political figure, though she did not desire to become such while growing up. Her father held influential roles in the Pakistani government such as Commerce Minister, Foreign Minister, and the lead of the UN delegation; these jobs often kept him away from home, leaving young Benazir in charge as the eldest of the family. While other females in Pakistan receive no formal education, Bhutto states that “there was no question in my family that my sister and I would be given the same opportunities in life as my brothers (34),” despite the common practice. At sixteen, the age of a high school junior, Bhutto applied to Cambridge University in the USA and left her country to study abroad. Though she did not begin her studies with the intention of studying government or politics, she found that her background made the subject very interesting, and frequent calls from her father to sit in on UN meetings and delegations supplemented her learning. After the completion of her undergraduate degree, Bhutto applied to Oxford University, her father’s alma mater, and three years later became the first female president of the Oxford Union, an exclusive political debate group. Bhutto worked tirelessly toward her goal of receiving the best education available to her and thus became incredibly respectable not only to the people in Pakistan, astounded that a girl would even attempt an education, but also to politicians living in first world countries who could determine the prestige associated with both Cambridge and Oxford.

Bhutto at Oxford

The Overthrow of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the Imprisonment of Benazir

After obtaining her graduate degree, Bhutto returned to Pakistan, only to witness the coup d’état of her father’s government. The army, led by the corrupt General Zia al-Huq, instated Martial Law which lasted for many years. In order to legitimize his rule, Zia framed Bhutto’s father for murder, and when the trial was dismissed due to a complete lack of any evidence whatsoever, Zia fired the judges and appointed his own handpicked judge to the case. This time began the relentless cycle of detainment and detentions that Bhutto would face throughout her life. However, Bhutto remained mentally strong while the military regime tried to break her down by not allowing any outside contact and worked on her father’s trial while in detainment. After her father’s execution, Bhutto states that “somehow my legs move. I cannot feel them. I have turned to stone. But I move… I move in a trance, conscious only of my head. High. I must keep it high. They are all watching (10).” This quote shows the pride instilled in her and displays her strong willed personality, unwilling to be broken down and to give the regime the reaction they wished to receive from her: defeat.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

The 33rd anniversary of Z. Bhutto's death
The 33rd anniversary of Z. Bhutto's death
Zulfiquar Bhutto
Zulfiquar Bhutto
General Zia-al-Huq
General Zia-al-Huq

Benazir Opposes Al-Huq

After her father’s death, Bhutto decided to take up his mantle and create a free, democratic country for her people: “I had felt it as I stood by my father’s grave, felt the strength and conviction of his soul replenishing me. At that moment I pledged to myself that I would not rest until democracy returned to Pakistan (18).” In this moment, Bhutto finally grew up and stopped relying on her father for everything; here, her undying dedication to her cause began. Despite her father’s death, Bhutto remained in trouble with the regime, and landed herself in even more when she proclaimed herself the new head of her father’s old political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Zia promised elections, and Bhutto intended to enter her party for a nomination. Zia then outlawed political rallies and meetings, the basis of the PPP. Bhutto listed them as independents. Zia stipulated that all independents must now carry 51% of the vote to gain a nomination. Bhutto accepted the challenge. Zia soon began to torture members of her party and tried to discourage her from attempting to run in his promised elections: “Every new atrocity brought another shock – and a new shock of determination. From anger I moved into a state of defiance and resolve. They think they think they can humiliate me? Try it, I remember thinking (128).” However, in the face of every new block that General Zia threw in Bhutto’s way, she continued to fight for her cause, demonstrating her incredible persistence and determination that proved so important in her career.

Bhutto's Campaign

Bhutto spent a lot of time speaking and rallying members of her party to oppose Zia-al-Haq
Bhutto spent a lot of time speaking and rallying members of her party to oppose Zia-al-Haq
Bhutto was incredibly popular with the Pakistani people and drew large crowds everywhere she went.
Bhutto was incredibly popular with the Pakistani people and drew large crowds everywhere she went.
The flag for the Pakistan People Party, the political party that Benazir Bhutto led.
The flag for the Pakistan People Party, the political party that Benazir Bhutto led.

Soon after her initial campaign, Zia created an excuse to throw Bhutto in jail once again.

Put in detention for several years without access to sunlight, clean water, or a doctor, it seemed that Bhutto’s only option left if she wanted to live included accepting defeat. Zia gave up all pretences of legitimacy and ruled the country with an iron fist, until he died in a plane crash. When released from her prison cell, Bhutto immediately began to plan for the election that her party hoped would happen as promised: “I put my foot down on the first step and took a deep breath. ‘Bismillah.’ I said to myself. ‘In the name of God, I begin (322).’” Though given basically no form of human interaction during her three year detention and a newfound fear of large groups of people, Bhutto still made the decision to run her party for election. Thus, she began a campaign trail, giving speeches across the country and rallying millions for her cause: “‘People think that I am weak because I am a woman,’ I called out to the crowds, 99 percent of whom were men. ‘Do they not know that I am a Muslim woman, and that Muslim women have a heritage to be proud of? I have the patience of Bibi Kadija…I have the perseverance of Bibi Zeinab…I have the courage of Bibi Aisha… The clapping turned into a cheer. ‘Zia za!’ I cried out using the Pashtu word for go. ‘Za, Za!’ The people roared in response (329).” Her great charisma influenced people to act and showed that while many could not even fathom the idea of a female ruler, they followed her willingly because of her passion about her cause. She connects with the people, who do not even speak the same language as her, but still came to hear her speak in this scene by referencing names that remain the same throughout the Muslim faith and by urging them for a response in their own language. Bhutto’s persistence came back quickly despite her long imprisonment devoid of human contact; she became confident once more in her ability to solve Pakistan’s problems and gained a huge following with her charismatic and passionate speeches.

Bhutto was known for being personable and charismatic
Bhutto was known for being personable and charismatic
Crowds gathered to see Bhutto speak
Crowds gathered to see Bhutto speak

On December 2, 1988, Bhutto became the youngest Prime Minister ever elected and the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim state. Within the first couple of days in office, she instituted a number of programs designed to help her country: “I immediately legalized labor union rights banned by the Zia junta…I restored free, open, and uncensored print and electronic media…We funded the electrification of villages in Pakistan…We also funded the building of roads and the availability of safe, portable water to our people (396).” Despite the President who disliked Bhutto and fought her reform efforts, she used her influence and innovative thoughts to bring Pakistan up to speed with the rest of the world by giving them education systems and telephone lines. Bhutto also continued to fight for women’s rights: “What I am probably most proud of though is what we managed to accomplish in promoting the rights of women and girls in a society where they had for so long been neglected and often openly abused (398).” She created innovative programs that educated women about safe sex and protecting oneself and began appointing women in her government. Although already facing issues with a rebellious Cabinet full of members who disliked the idea of a woman in power and a President who resisted her every effort, Bhutto began to make inroads in the complex problem contained within the Pakistani society and the economy.

Bhutto wore the colors of the Pakistani flag to her inauguration as Prime Minister of Pakistan
Bhutto wore the colors of the Pakistani flag to her inauguration as Prime Minister of Pakistan
While in office, Bhutto gave birth to two of her children. Because of this, several leaders of the government who opposed the idea of a woman in office tried to overthrow her, but failed.
While in office, Bhutto gave birth to two of her children. Because of this, several leaders of the government who opposed the idea of a woman in office tried to overthrow her, but failed.

The Death of Benazir Bhutto

On December 27, 2007, the news of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination resonated throughout the world. Leaving a rally for the Pakistan People’s Party, Bhutto stood through the sunroof to wave to the crowd as she departed; in that moment, a gunman fired at her as several bombs planted nearby exploded, taking her life. Though she can no longer fight for equality today, I believe that if Bhutto remained alive, she would continue her efforts to bring equality to women in Muslim countries and try to show the rest of the world that the Islamic faith is more than “the caricature of my faith that the terrorists have hijacked (xii).” I also believe that she would fight to clear her name of the charges placed on her and run for a third term as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. In her time in office, Bhutto managed to make many important changes and if given the chance to run again, she would strive toward the idea of an equal Pakistan and a thriving economy.

Throughout her extraordinary life, Benazir Bhutto endeavored toward bringing democracy to a long corrupt country and a better life for women in a society where they were treated as no more than animals or products to be haggled over. She demonstrated remarkable characteristics that allowed her to become the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim state and bring about more change than the country received in decades. Thus, Benazir Bhutto takes her place in history as one of the most influential women of all time and continues to inspire Muslims and women around the world today.

Bhutto Is Still Remembered Today By Her People

Bhutto
Bhutto

The epic story of Benazir Bhutto, the first woman in history to lead a Muslim nation.

A favored daughter of the family often called the "Kennedys of Pakistan," Benazir was elected Prime Minister after her father was overthrown and executed by his own military. Her time in power saw acts of courage and controversy as she broke the Islamic glass ceiling, fought for the rights of women, and tried to quell the fires of religious extremism, while battling accusations of corruption.

 

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    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      What an amazing woman. Great article.

    • chicagoguy profile image

      Raj Lally Batala 2 years ago from Chicago ,USA

      Great Article

    • mk-globetrotter profile image

      Mustafa Khursheed 2 years ago

      Great Hub, Abbie! And truly Bhutto was a great woman and one of the rulers who could have brought Pakistan a great future! Sadly, her party has now steeped into corruption and little hope is left...

    • RGveritas profile image

      Olive Gatz 20 months ago

      Great read!

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