Muslim Women’s History Month: Spotlight on Benazir Bhutto

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Benazir Bhutto. Credit: Creative Commons/iFaqeer.

March being Women’s History Month, it gives rise to the inevitable discussions of women and their contributions to our collective past. For Muslims, March can also be a time to recognize the achievements of women from our own faith tradition, and in some cases it is a time to discover new female role models we never even realized existed. Stories of the past can serve as powerful motivators for all of us, but for Muslims in particular, the tales of intelligent, brave, creative and influential Muslim women can serve to lift us all collectively into a sense of pride. For the rest of the world, these stories serve to break down stereotypes of the “Muslim woman” – with her perceived limitations, oppression and handicaps.
Last week I highlighted the tale of Noor Inayat Khan, a little-known Muslim spy princess during the French Resistance. Since many in the western world consider Muslim women in the Middle East and Asia to be more oppressed and weak, this week’s Muslim Woman story is about the “other” side of the world. This week I journey in my mind back to my native Pakistan to highlight Benazir Bhutto, a female Muslim political leader who personified women’s empowerment and stood up for democracy in the face of dictatorship.
Political figures can be difficult to write about, because of the nature of politics itself. We tend to paint them with the brush of their political leanings, and forget to see them as human beings. In the political landscape of Pakistan, too, Benazir was a polarizing figure for that very reason. Those who were against her policies loved to hate her, while her followers were literally willing to die for her. We forget that regardless of her sometimes unsuccessful policies she also stood for many things that benefitted every Pakistani woman, and I dare say she could be a role model for every woman in the world today. Let me explain.
Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) came from a political Pakistani family (her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto served as prime minister of Pakistan in the 70s) and practically grew up with the expectation of entering the political arena of the nation. After early education in Pakistan, she came to the U.S. for higher education, and received a B.A. in comparative government from the Radcliffe College at Harvard in 1973. She then traveled to the U.K. to study philosophy, politics, economics, international law and diplomacy from Oxford. Later in life she was awarded two honorary LLD degrees, one from Harvard and the other from the University of Toronto.
Politics is a dangerous game. During her father’s term as Prime Minister, the government was overthrown by infamous military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who executed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979 and arrested his family members repeatedly. Benazir describes one instance of arrest in 1981 in her book Daughter of the East as follows:

The summer heat turned my cell into an oven. My skin split and peeled, coming off my hands in sheets. Boils erupted on my face. My hair, which had always been thick, began to come out by the handful. Insects crept into the cell like invading armies. Grasshoppers, mosquitoes, stinging flies, bees and bugs came up through the cracks in the floor and through the open bars from the courtyard. Big black ants, cockroaches, seething clumps of little red ants and spiders. I tried pulling the sheet over my head at night to hide from their bites, pushing it back when it got too hot to breathe.

Whatever her politics, Benazir was an exceptional role model for Pakistani girls like myself, succeeding in breaking stereotypes, striking down limitations, and shattering glass ceilings. In 1982 at age 29 she became the first female leader of a major political party in Pakistan, and in 1988 became the 11th Prime Minister – the first woman elected to lead a Muslim country and incidentally also Pakistan’s first and only female head of state. She was re-elected again in 1993 for a second term, but later corruption charges and economic instability led to her political downfall and self-exile to U.A.E. in 1998. Upon her return to Pakistan in 2007 she was assassinated in a public bombing, resulting in being named one of seven winners in the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 2008.
As a teenager during Benazir’s first election and a college student during her subsequent rule in Pakistan, I personally was enamored by her charisma, style and strength in a nation run mostly by less educated tribal men. Having no political affiliations myself, I learned from her what it meant to be a Muslim woman who could command those around her, yet be a model of motherhood and femininity. In 1990 with the birth of her son Bilawal, she became the first modern head of government to give birth while in office, and we often saw photographs of her in the media accompanied by her family and children. In a world where women must often choose between family and professional life, she struck a balance that became an illustration for others. She served as an example for many other Muslim women, who emerged out of their homes and began contributing to public, social and political life because of her.
Benazir’s contribution to the progress of Pakistan is hotly debated even after her death. But as a Muslim woman, the influence she had on other Muslim women like me was tremendous. Even as the nation became disillusioned with her towards the end of her political rule, they continued to love what she exemplified to all women everywhere. This month I salute her courage in the face of a chauvinistic society and hope that many more Muslim women will follow her lead to become the self-assured, independent and empowered women that Islam meant us to be. That is Benazir’s true legacy.