Our woman hero of June is Benazir Bhutto! She was a Pakistani politician who served as Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. She was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation. Ideologically a liberal and a secularist, she chaired or co-chaired the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) from the early 1980s until her assassination in 2007.
Bhutto was born on 21 June 1953 in Karachi to a politically important, wealthy aristocratic family. Her father, the PPP’s founder and leader Zulfikar, was elected Prime Minister on a socialist platform in 1973. Throughout her youth, Bhutto idolized her father, and he in turn encouraged her educational development in contravention of traditional approaches to women then pervasive in Pakistan. Bhutto studied at Harvard University and the University of Oxford, where she was President of the Oxford Union debating society, the first Asian woman to hold that post . She returned to Pakistan in 1977, shortly before her father was ousted in a military coup and executed.
Bhutto and her mother Nusrat took control of the PPP and led the country’s Movement for the Restoration of Democracy; Bhutto was repeatedly imprisoned by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military government and then exiled to Britain in 1984. She returned in 1986 and—influenced by Thatcherite economics, the conviction, economic, social and political style of the British Conservative Party politician Margaret Thatcher—transformed the PPP’s platform from a socialist to a liberal one, before leading it to victory in the 1988 election.
Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister in a Muslim-majority country, as well as the youngest elected leader in the Islamic world. She was the world’s youngest Prime Minister, the youngest female Prime Minister ever elected, and Pakistan’s second nationally elected Prime Minister. After her election, party workers were encouraged to refer to her as Mohtarma (“respected lady”). There was hope among many observers that her premiership would mark a new era of multi-party democracy, growing gender equality, and better relations with India.
However, her attempts at reform were stifled by conservative and Islamist forces, including President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the powerful military. Her administration was accused of corruption and nepotism, and dismissed by Khan in 1990. Intelligence services rigged that year’s election to ensure a victory for the conservative Islamic Democratic Alliance (IJI), after which Bhutto served as the Leader of the Opposition.
After the IJI government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was also dismissed on corruption charges, Bhutto led the PPP to victory in the 1993 elections. Her second term oversaw economic privatization and attempts to advance women’s rights. Her government was damaged by several controversies, including the assassination of her brother Murtaza, a failed 1995 coup d’état, and a further bribery scandal involving her and her husband Asif Ali Zardari; in response to the latter, the President again dismissed her government. The PPP lost the 1997 election and in 1998 she went into self-exile in Dubai, leading her party mainly through proxies.
Following United States-brokered negotiations with President Pervez Musharraf, Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 2007 to compete in the 2008 elections; her platform emphasized civilian oversight of the military and opposition to growing Islamist violence. After a political rally in Rawalpindi, she was assassinated. The Salafi jihadi group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, although the involvement of the Pakistani Taliban and rogue elements of the intelligence services were widely suspected. She was buried at her family mausoleum.
Benazir Bhutto inspires us that women could also have a political success in a male-dominated society. Bhutto displayed admirable qualities, especially valor in the face of opposition. She was a shining example of what youth, fortitude, and idealism can accomplish even in the most brutal and repressive political culture.
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