My favourite image of Benazir Bhutto is from a welcome rally on her second return to Pakistan on October 18, 2007. An older, perhaps wiser Benazir, now free of the baggage of her marriage and brothers, more of the independent party leader that she aspired to be, is looking into the camera, with a sea of supporters in the background. There is that fearless exuberance in her eyes that always filled her followers with joy.
On that very day, Benazir had returned to Pakistan and taken centre-stage in the nation’s politics. This resonated with people a generation older than I am – those who had been dazzled by a similar spectacle on April 10, 1986, when Benazir returned from her first self-imposed exile after her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been executed in what was later deemed a “judicial murder” by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq.
Benazir was now a heroine and the face of Pakistan People’s Party. She was young, pixie-like – a spirited creature shouting “jiye Bhutto” (long live Bhutto) atop a truck.
But this was in the 80s. In the late 2000s, she was a 50-something woman, again fighting a military dictator in a very different political landscape. There was an “enemy within”, which was a lot more fierce than Zia-ul-Haq.
A suicide bomber greeted her second welcome rally. Almost 200 people died, and hundreds were injured. Her green and white dress was blood splattered – a symbol of what Pakistan had become. She had been warned against this rally. Her niece, Fatima Bhutto, had blamed her for holding this welcome rally.
As a naive student just starting out with college life, I had also wondered why Benazir went ahead with it despite the threats. I didn’t understand the risks democratic leaders faced in Pakistan and thought they should stop when extremists threatened them. Of course, now I realise this is a complicated decision.
One of my uncles had been in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Cabinet in the 1970s and was a high-profile leader. But he had a public fallout with Bhutto and gave a speech against him in Parliament. Bhutto was well-known for avenging his opponents and his revenge against my uncle involved vile attempts at threatening the women in my family.
My family elders who had once voted for Bhutto were now filled with anger against him. Throughout my childhood, I grew up on stories about a “power-hungry Benazir” – the daughter of an immoral man and the wife of a corrupt one.
There was some truth in all of these allegations, but there was no depth in this analysis. Now, as a grown women with friends in PPP, and an awareness of different political narratives in Pakistan – I relate with Benazir’s struggle as a woman.
Her portrayal in my family had been sexist. Much of it was based on the gossip spread by her political opponents – including those in the Jamaat-e-Islami. Now, I hear stories of her possible domestic abuse, fractures in her marriage owing to her politics and harassment in Parliament. She was at times openly abused.
Benazir’s main political challenge was neither dictatorship nor religious extremism – it was patriarchy. Women in Pakistan routinely compromise on their careers for “domestic bliss”, which demands all their time and energy. Why lose your dignity on the streets when you can live a respectable life at home?
An even greater challenge was being a young woman in Pakistan’s 1980s. Not just because of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation and the atrocious Hudood Ordinance that followed it. But also because middle-class women of that generation, including my mother and aunts, were raised to “adjust to” regressive marriages and corrosive workplaces despite their education.
Women like my mother and aunts were acutely aware of their professional potential, but also had to compromise for their families. Most of these women had lesser educated mothers who had big dreams for their daughters.
This is what made Benazir a potent symbol for me – a woman Prime Minister of the (hyper) Islamic Republic of Pakistan where most women are expected to stay in the kitchen.
One has to expose oneself to the public in political rallies, processions, and even Parliament. Today, women politicians are exposed to a very vicious media too.
As a grown woman who has faced all sorts of issues at home and at the workplace – I now have a compassionate take on Benazir. Her motherhood, political commitment and attempt to carry forward her father’s legacy bewitch me.
In a country where most women are scared into a “secure” marriage, encouraged to forget their careers for child-raising and not allowed to work because it is against “tradition” – Benazir was an outlier.
We all wonder what Pakistan would be like had she been alive. Her party’s governance record in federal and provincial government would have been much better, of course. She was more erudite and devoted to her people than her husband who led the party after her demise.
Aspiring politicians seek inspiration from her – women politicians tend to dress up like she did and men copy her slogans. Her children have tried this too. Now, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s (Benazir’s staunch political rival in the 90s) daughter is also compared to her.
But they lack her passion, her courage, her vulnerability, her ability to become one with her supporters and a lifelong commitment to her political work.
Benazir hailed from Sindh where she has unfortunately metamorphosed into a fantastical saint. I think she was more than “Bibi shaheed” or “Mohtarma” or “Shaheed Rani”.
She was Benazir, the woman.
I have seen many of her videos and photos by now. On her anniversary and birthday, the Pakistani media splashes her images all over television.
My favourite moment, though, is from October 19, when she visited Karachi’s Jinnah Hospital where her party workers were being treated after the bomb blast. She was wearing a yellow coat with a white dupatta.
She embraced her workers, gave them emotional reassurances and on her way out, she got out of the car and waved at her supporters. They responded with chants of “Jiye Bhutto”.