by Gillian R Kemmerer
Some described her as “glamorous,” others as “disillusioned.” A product of Western education and a small political dynasty, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was an anomaly to her countrymen. The first freely elected woman to hold office in an Islamic state, Bhutto rose to power at the age of thirty-five, making her the youngest Prime Minister in Pakistan’s history. Though she had her faults- most notably, failing to liberate women as fully promised in the face of opposition- it is no doubt that Bhutto’s full potential was hindered by a dangerous web that spanned from her husband to her own pedigree. A series of “entanglements” – both intentional and not- paralyzed Bhutto’s political career from before it began.
The first dangerous liaison Bhutto formed in the eyes of her countrymen was a romance with Western education. A comparative government major at Harvard, Bhutto described her years at the American institution as “the happiest of my life.” Though America- specifically Cambridge, Massachusetts- would not be her final academic destination, she bestowed an enormous gift to Harvard Law School upon her election. Bhutto not only embraced her Western education but continued it, spending an additional four years at Oxford University upon graduation from Harvard. This experience inspired an interest in policy reform and overall government modernization, a topic that many conservatives in Pakistan viewed as duplicity in an Eastern world.
Further ties to the West that had nothing to do with pluralism would soon come under fire, resulting in the condemnation of Bhutto’s next politically treacherous connection: Asif Ali Zardari. Married in 1987, Bhutto and Zardari found themselves working side-by-side in the Pakistani government. A major player during both of his wife’s terms in office, Zardari was at the center of controversial corruption charges that would lead to Bhutto’s dismissal from office. The charges ranged from money laundering through Swiss banks to bribes involving French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation. Though none of Zardari’s charges have been proven, his wife was inevitably linked to the alleged crimes. Bhutto called the charges “politically motivated” and despite solid opposition, was promptly removed from office in both 1990 and 1996. Many analysts continue to attribute her demise to Zardari’s insatiable avarice, though few major Pakistani political players at the time removed her from the blame. Even Irshad Manji, a prominent Muslim reformist and women’s rights advocate, was quick to dismiss Bhutto’s time in office as a catastrophe.
Though not under her control, Benazir Bhutto was equally damned by her bloodline. Her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was forcibly removed from office in a 1977 coup d’état. Though promised freedom, Bhutto was charged with conspiracy against the new government and hanged two years after the political overthrow. Her brothers, Shahnawaz and Murtaza Bhutto, both died under mysterious circumstances. Fatima Bhutto, Murtaza’s daughter, asserted that her controversial aunt and uncle should be implicated in the murder. This widely held conviction contributed to the subversion of Bhutto’s second term in office.
Bhutto’s brief reign in Pakistan was far from perfect, but the bottom-line is this: despite her imperfections, Benazir Bhutto was a modern, educated woman with much to contribute politically. Her connections- ranging from academic to personal- wove a web of impossibility that was fated to end in the manner of her father and brothers.