Benazir Bhutto

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Date: Feb. 25, 2008
From: Newsmakers
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,877 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1170L

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About this Person
Born: June 21, 1953 in Karachi, Pakistan
Died: December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan
Nationality: Pakistani
Occupation: Prime minister
Updated:Feb. 25, 2008

When Benazir Bhutto, then 35, and her Pakistan People's Party won the post of prime minister in late 1988, she became the first female leader of a Muslim country in centuries. Living with Bhutto became problematic for the nation's conservative clergy. Before the election, Islamic scholar Mohammed Amin Minhas exhorted believers, "A nation that elects to be governed by a woman will not prosper," according to the Los Angeles Times. But when the nation elected to do just that, Minhas went back to the Koran, the Islamic holy book, decided he was wrong, and said, "Allah has given us this woman as our leader and Miss Benazir has acknowledged that this new power she possesses is, indeed, Allah's gift." The Times wrote, "The nation is attempting to explain to itself how it broke new ground, choosing a female leader for an Islamic land where women are rarely seen, let alone heard or revered." The answer may be that Bhutto was elected not because she is a woman, but because she is a Bhutto. Ruling Pakistan is a family tradition. Her martyred father, the country's first and only elected leader, died at the hands of the general who overthrew him. Benazir Bhutto, tutored on the fineries of Pakistani politics in her father's jail cell, would defy that general until his death in an unexplained plane crash months before a national election that would have pitted him against the daughter.

Still, Pakistanis seemed to need to explain Bhutto, who is known by her childhood nickname, Pinkie, to friends. A Pakistani businessman told the Los Angeles Times: "She is respected for her defiance of authority. She is no ordinary woman. In fact, she is seen as more a man than a woman---more a man even than a man, because she has defied the authority of army generals and a dictator, and she has won. For us, she is like an Islamic 'Rambo.'" Novelist Salman Rushdie dubbed her "Virgin Ironpants" in his novel Shame. When she had fully become her father's political heir, critics watched to see if her deeds could match the idolatry of her supporters. The New York Times wrote: "Benazir has captured the imagination of her people, almost as a religious idol. Her promises are grand and sweeping: freedom, prosperity, education. The way to fulfill these promises is left deliberately vague."

In Pakistan, politics can even swirl around maternal intrigue. The man who sentenced Bhutto's father to death, General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, while still alive, called elections in mid-1988 only when it became clear that Bhutto would be late in her pregnancy during the final stages of the expected campaign. She once told Ms. magazine, "I have to make sure that the children come at a time when it is not politically unfavorable." But in her autobiography, Bhutto wrote, "I didn't know whether Zia's announcement was influenced by my condition, but it did follow the [newspaper] confirmation that I was expecting."

The campaign, when it did come following Zia's death, resembled nothing American. According to Newsweek, crowds estimated at 100,000 waited for Bhutto when she arrived 12 hours late for a rally in Faisalabad, and chanted, "Lead us forever." She led a 1,000-mile whistle stop train trip that had supporters shimmying up signal poles and flocking overpasses to get a glimpse of her. Bhutto often road on the tops of trucks, spotlighted during nighttime parades---unmistakable in bright red glasses, her dark hair half-covered with a bright dupatta, or scarf.

And the rhetoric and dirty tricks of a Pakistani election campaign makes its American counterpart look like a PTA meeting. The Los Angeles Times reported: "The Islamic scholars and Mullahs...that opposed Bhutto and her party warned on election eve that a vote for the People's Party would 'damn the nation forever to the hell of Western corruption.' And opposition campaign workers handed out posters of Bhutto's face pasted on the bikini-clad body of a pinup girl." Even her chief opponent, Mian Nawaz Sharif of the Islamic Democratic Alliance, claimed "his party's triumph...would be the defeat of agents of India and Israel: 'Islamic order and social justice will win the battle against those who want to make Pakistan a secular state,'" according to the New York Times. The paper also wrote that Sharif, on a rural campaign swing, "tried to exploit equally primitive, but darker emotions....'The Bhutto ladies,' he said, referring to Benazir and her mother, Nusrat, 'danced with foreign men in London and Paris. I'd like to see them live here, in this village, with you and me.'"

At the nation's 33,328 polling places, Bhutto's PPP captured 92 of the parliament's 237 seats, with which she was able to build a ruling coalition with lesser parties. The election, mostly, was uneventful. According to Time magazine, a Pakistani editor wrote: "Peace has not broken down. Violence has remained well within the limits of subcontinental activity." Roughly 75 percent of the country is illiterate, which meant many voters had to cast their ballots by symbol rather than name---an arrow for Bhutto and the PPP, a bicycle for the Democratic Alliance. When Bhutto was officially appointed prime minister by the nation's president several weeks later, it marked the first time power was transferred peacefully in Pakistan's 41 years.

Pakistan, as a nation, has existed only since 1947 when it was carved from part of India. Throughout its brief history, Islam has been the uniting force of a country otherwise split into tribal, language, and divergent regional histories. The military ruled almost exclusively until 1971 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won a popular vote.

The Bhutto family came from the feudal southern province of Sindh, where they were wealthy landowners. Benazir's father, Berkeley-educated, sent her to Radcliffe at the age of 16, where she studied international relations. There, she dressed in sweat pants to play squash but refused to wear dresses or dance, and she kept to Islamic dietary laws in the dining room, according to Vanity Fair magazine. "I let my hair grow long and straight and was flattered when my friends...told me I looked like Joan Baez," she wrote in her autobiography. She traveled to Washington to march in a protest against the American war in Vietnam and wore a "Bring the Boys Home Now" button, she wrote in her book. She followed her father to Oxford where she became president of the Union Society debating club. According to the Chicago Tribune, the elder Bhutto imagined his daughter returning to Pakistan as foreign minister. But while at Oxford, General Zia, emboldened by what were widely perceived as rigged elections staged by the elder Bhutto in 1987, engineered a successful coup.

Zulkifar Ali Bhutto was jailed under brutal conditions, eventually wasting away to 80 pounds before he was executed in 1979. When she returned to Pakistan in 1977, Benazir Bhutto was also imprisoned and later kept under house arrest. Her hearing was damaged permanently after a six-month sentence in the searing heat of a Pakistani desert prison. She was held for months in solitary confinement (Zia was afraid that, free, she could topple his government) before finally being allowed to go into exile in Britain. She returned to Pakistan in 1986, a year after Zia lifted martial law that had been in place since his coup.

Even supporters of Bhutto were worried how her extreme devotion to her father wouldaffect her stewardship over Pakistan. After the election, Newsweek wrote: "For a long time [Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's] daughter-protegee seemed to be bent on revenge. Lately she has talked instead of reconciliation." And the Chicago Tribune noted, "Prime Minister [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto had run a corrupt, autocratic government, jailing dozens of opponents and demanding blind obedience from his ministers and other subordinates." Her autobiography, Daughter of Destiny, scoffs at the allegations of rigged elections. The New York Times said her "most intense, almost blind devotion centered on her father, who involved her in politics from an early age. Prime Minister Bhutto was a controversial figure, politically and personally, but Ms. Bhutto will brook no criticism of him." Benazir Bhutto, according to the Times, frequently tells the story of how her father, in his prison cell, took her hand and said, "My daughter, should anything happen to me, you will continue my mission."

But not only the father and daughter suffered. Her brother, Shah Nawaz, died of poisoning in Paris, a murder Benazir Bhutto believed was committed by rightist elements who had also plotted against the father. And her mother, Nusrat, also spent long stretches in detention, contracting tuberculosis in the crowded, unsanitary conditions. Much of Benazir Bhutto's time in prison was spent in solitary confinement. In her autobiography, she wrote of 1981: "Flaking cement. Iron bars. And silence. Utter silence. I am back in total isolation, the cells around me in the locked ward all emptied. I strain for the sound of a human voice. There is only silence."

Benazir Bhutto's final march to the office of prime minister began in 1986. On her return from exile, an estimated one to three million Pakistanis greeted her arrival at Lahore airport. Bhutto rode on top of a truck to a park where she gave her first homecoming speech. The drive, which would normally take 15 minutes, took 10 hours because of the huge crowd. Zia jailed her briefly, but by May 1988, he dissolved Parliament and called for elections. Government opponents were already fretting over the possibility of rigged elections, but Zia and 30 others, including the American ambassador to Pakistan, died in an unexplained plane crash on August 17, 1988. Without Zia to control the de facto military government, Bhutto and the PPP swept to victory three months later.

Her first state visit to Washington, in June of 1989, got rave reviews from most observers. But Newsweek reported: "Bhutto's visit comes at a particularly delicate time in U.S.-Pakistan relations. With the 10-year-old Afghan civil war moving to an end, Pakistani officials worry that the United States no longer needs a close ally in Islamabad [the Pakistani capital] to aid the Afghan rebels. Pakistan is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, behind Israel and Egypt, and Bhutto's government desperately needs the aid to continue." By most accounts, she appeared to calm the fears of American officials, preserving, at least for the short run, the critical foreign aid. Bhutto appeared less excited about building nuclear weapons than many conservative politicians in the country. During her visit she pledged to pursue only peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Not all American observers took that entirely at face value. Her economics are capitalist. To erase Third World debt she prescribed decentralization, deregulation, and investment incentives. But U.S. News & World Report wrote that her exact economic plan will be largely dictated by the International Monetary Fund, which was ready with a $900 million loan by late 1988, provided Pakistan implement deficit cutting and tax reform.

At home, her first challenge---both politically and personally---was be getting along with the military, which still ate 60 percent of the nation's budget. The Chicago Tribune reported, "The military is the nation's only tightly run organization, analysts say, and its leaders have made no secret of their contempt for politicians whom they consider opportunistic and corrupt." And also at home, Bhutto declared war on the nation's illegal drug trade---both because of the internal social damage it caused and because U.S. officials have complained that tons of heroin from Pakistan end up on American streets each year.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto urged his daughter---and other Pakistani women---to "throw off their veils and become productive members of Pakistani society," wrote the Los Angeles Times. Still, more than a decade later, many of those women were turned away at the polls because their husbands refused to give them the government identification card necessary to vote. "The main point is," said Pakistani author and women's activist Farida Shaheed, "you don't get political power in this country by representing women. You get power by representing men." Bhutto defies Western standards of women's liberation. Her arranged marriage to Asif Ali Zardari, another rich Sindhi, who came with his own polo team, surprised many in the west. But the arranged marriage, Ms. magazine reported, "may shield her from criticism by Islamic fundamentalists who attack her for advocating modern, Westernized ideals about the role of women." And Bhutto told an old Radcliffe friend writing for Life magazine: "My mother tells me that love will come. But Asif and I will have a marriage based on something stronger than love."

Bhutto, like Indira Gandhi or Corazon Aquino, inherited a dynastic mantle of leadership from a male relative: Gandhi from her father and Aquino from her slain husband. The New York Times wrote, "Ms. Bhutto believes herself to be the avenger of a martyred leader." The distinction is important to a society that sees her as something more than a woman. The New York Times wrote: "The worship of Benazir Bhutto is less a sign of liberalism or female emancipation than of Pakistan's essentially Indian heritage. The Great Mother, who can be both horribly destructive and divinely benevolent, is one of the foundations of Indian religious worship."

By 1990, only two years into her work, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Bhutto from her office. By 1993, however, she had been re-elected to her position as Prime Minister. According to, "While in office, she brought electricity to the countryside and built schools all over the country. She made hunger, housing and health care her top priorities, and looked forward to continuing to modernize Pakistan."

Though the focus should have been on how Bhutto was improving the country, it was instead placed on a feud between her brother, Mir Murtaza, and her husband. Her brother accused her husband of corruption, but could go no further with his accusations because he was murdered in a gunfight involving his bodyguard. In 1996, President Leghari dismissed Bhutto from her work. Her bid for re-election failed in 1997 and she was forced out of the country.

Bhutto and her family moved to London. Zardari was sentenced to prison on corruption charges in 2004 and did not join the family in London until 2007. That same year, Bhutto announced that she intended to run again for Prime Minister of Pakistan in the following year's elections. In October, she returned to Pakistan and took up permanent residence. She was greeted by 200,000 people at the airport in Karachi and along the route from the airport to her home. However, as her convoy was traveling this route it was attacked by two bombs, one of which was believed to have been detonated by a suicide bomber. Approximately 130 people were killed and another 200 were wounded by the bombs, but Bhutto was unharmed.

The next month, Bhutto called on Pakistanis to defy President Pervez Musharraf's ban on political gatherings and to join her at a rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on November 9. The ban on rallies was imposed on November 3, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended the Pakistani constitution. On November 9, Pakistani authorities ordered Bhutto to be placed under house arrest for three days, preventing her from attending the rally that she had helped to organize in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The police also refused to allow the demonstrators to enter the area where the rally was supposed to be held. She was released from house arrest the following day. She would spend another week under house arrest later that month.

On December 27, 2007, Bhutto was killed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, by a suicide bombing. She had been riding in a car during a rally and had climbed through the sunroof to wave to supporters when a bus exploded nearby and gunshots were heard. Twenty people surrounding Bhutto's vehicle were shot and killed. While it appeared Bhutto was also shot, it was initially unclear if the bullet wounds to her head and neck were caused by a shooting or if it was shrapnel from the bomb. Scotland Yard later announced that Bhutto had died from head injuries suffered in the bombing of her SUV, not from gunshot wounds. She was 54.

Controversy surrounded everything involved with Bhutto's death: The scene of the crime was cleaned quickly and evidence was washed away that may have pointed to Bhutto's killers. Her son, Bilawal, should have succeeded her, but he was a student at the time and the power and title went to his father. By mid-January, however, Bilawal had assumed his rightful role and asked the United Nations to investigate his mother's death.

February of 2008 saw the publishing of Bhutto's Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West by Harper. Later that month, Pakistani police arrested two suspects in Bhutto's assassination. In the coming years, up to seven people would be arrested in connection with Bhutto's death. In November of 2011, five Pakistani militants and two police officers were indicted for the assassination.


Born June 21, 1953, in Karachi, Pakistan; daughter of Zulfikar Al (a politician) and Nusrat (Ispahani) Bhutto; married Asif Ali Zardari (a businessman), December, 1987; children: one. Education: Radcliffe College, B.A. in government, 1973; Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, degree (with honors), 1976.



  • Daughter of Destiny (autobiography), Simon & Schuster, 1989.
  • Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, Harper, 2008.



  • Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1988; November 14, 1988; November 20, 1988.
  • Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1988.
  • Life, February, 1988.
  • Ms., March, 1988.
  • Newsweek, November 14, 1988; November 28, 1988; December 12, 1988; June 19, 1989.
  • New York Times, April 11, 1986; September 21, 1986; December 2, 1988; December 4, 1988.
  • New York Times Magazine, January 15, 1989.
  • Time, November 21, 1988; November 28, 1988; June 19, 1989.
  • U.S. News & World Report, November 28, 1988.
  • Vanity Fair, May, 1986; March, 1988.
  • Washington Post, December 2, 1988.


  • "Benazir Bhutto Biography,", (November 28, 2011).
  • "Bhutto Issues Pakistan Ultimatum," BBC News, (November 28, 2011).
  • "EX-PM Bhutto Under House Arrest," BBC News, (November 28, 2011).
  • "Musharraf Rejects UN Probe," BBC News, (November 28, 2011).
  • "Obituary: Benazir Bhutto," BBC News, (November 28, 2011).
  • "Pakistan Indicts 7 in Bhutto Assassination," the New York Times, (November 28, 2011).


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Gale Document Number: GALE|K1618000204