Bhutto, Benazir (1953—)

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Bhutto, Benazir (1953—)

Pakistani political leader and prime minister. Born in Karachi, West Pakistan, on June 21, 1953; daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nusrat Bhutto (b. 1929); attended convent schools in Pakistan, Radcliffe College, Harvard University, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University; married Asif Ali Zardari; children: three, including son Bilawal (b. 1988) and daughter Asifa.

Placed under house arrest (1977–84); along with her mother, leader in exile of Pakistan People's Party; returned to Pakistan (1986) to lead Movement for the Restoration of Democracy; appointed prime minister (1988), becoming the first woman to head a modern Muslim state; removed from office on charges of corruption (1990); served second term as prime minister (1993–96).

The first woman to become head of government of a modern Muslim state, Benazir Bhutto was born in Karachi, West Pakistan, on June 21, 1953. She was the firstborn of Nusrat Bhutto and her husband Zulfikar Ali Bhutto whose family was among the leading landowners of the Larkana district of Sind province in southeastern Pakistan. Zulfikar was often away building a political career that rapidly propelled him from diplomatic posts to the presidency. Strongly influenced by both parents, Benazir was first educated at home by an English governess, then sent off to attend several elite Roman Catholic convent schools, one of which was located in a breathtaking setting in the foothills of the Himalayas.

In 1969, at age 16, Benazir Bhutto enrolled at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, taking classes in comparative government. Although her mother had spent several weeks getting her settled in, her new life contrasted sharply with the extraordinary privileges she had taken for granted in Pakistan. In the United States, it was a shock for her to have to walk to classes, after having been taken to and from school in a chauffeur-driven car in Pakistan. In addition to having to "walk and walk and walk," Benazir had to learn to live in bitterly cold weather and eat without being served by a staff of servants. She exchanged her saris for blue jeans and—despite her fears of being deported—marched in a number of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. She also made a number of critical observations of American life, noting how little respect children showed their parents. Arriving in the U.S. during the anti-authoritarian 1960s, she was horrified at what she perceived as students' utter lack of respect for their teachers, evidenced by their putting legs up on chairs and smoking in class.

Back home in Pakistan, her father Zulfikar was emerging in the 1960s as the country's leading voice of opposition to an increasingly repressive series of military rulers. After resigning his post of foreign minister, in 1967 he formed a new political party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which promised the nation's impoverished masses "Bread, Clothing, Shelter." The Bhutto house at 70 Clifton Road in Karachi soon became a bustling headquarters of the new party, and before her departure for the United States Benazir had experienced her first introduction to political life by helping to sign up new PPP members. Political and economic chaos helped the new party gain strength; in the national elections of December 1970, it picked up 72 out of 138 National Assembly seats.

The loss of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971, totally discredited the old regime. In the last days of that year, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over as president of a crises-ridden nation. Although still a student in the U.S., Benazir followed events at home with great interest, often having to explain the situation to American friends whose knowledge of the intricacies of Pakistani politics was slight to nonexistent. Benazir's father was clearly grooming his brilliant daughter for the future when, during her 1972 summer vacation trip home, she accompanied him on a summit trip to India for a series of meetings with Indira Gandhi . After completing her studies in

America, Benazir Bhutto enrolled at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, for advanced study of economics and political philosophy. Graduating with honors in 1976, she was urged by her father to remain for another year to take a foreign-service course. During this period, she was elected to a three-month term as president of the Oxford Union, the first foreign woman to be accorded this considerable honor.

In the summer of 1977, Bhutto flew home to find Pakistan in turmoil. The PPP had won a recent parliamentary election, but the opposition parties charged that the election had been rigged. Riots ensued, and soon the country was paralyzed, a situation that provided the army chief of staff with a pretext to arrest Zulfikar Bhutto and other politicians. Soon after, he was taken into custody, old political grudges surfaced and Zulfikar was charged with conspiracy to murder the father of a former political ally who had become a PPP adversary. Benazir spoke out vigorously to protest her father's incarceration. Within weeks of his arrest, she too paid the price for political dissent and was held under house arrest until early in 1978. In March of that year, her father was sentenced to death. Because of her protests against the sentence, Benazir was arrested again in October 1978 for her "objectionable speeches." Despite worldwide protests, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in April 1979. Benazir remained under custody, was not permitted to attend his burial at the family estate in Larkana, and was only released some two months after his execution. Still regarded by the regime as a dangerous political foe, Benazir was again arrested in October 1979 on charges of holding an unauthorized meeting, creating alarm, and bringing the armed forces into disrepute. She remained in custody until early April 1980. After several more arrests, she was finally released in January 1984 in order to receive medical attention for a serious middle-ear and mastoid infection.

In exile in London, Benazir and her mother Nusrat organized the Pakistani opposition. A family tragedy that likely had political origins was the mysterious death in France of her younger brother Shahwanaz in July 1985. Pakistani exiles suspected he was poisoned because of his militant opposition to the Karachi regime. When Benazir accompanied his body back for burial next to his father at the family estate, the funeral procession turned into a major political protest. Once more, Benazir was placed under house arrest but was permitted to leave the country after several months.

Benazir Bhutto and her mother returned to Pakistan permanently in 1986. Together, they cochaired a renewed PPP. Nusrat arranged a marriage for Benazir with Asif Ali Zardari, member of a prominent landowning clan, in 1987, assuring her daughter that love would come later. The government hoped to use Benazir's forthcoming pregnancy against her and the PPP by scheduling national elections for the due date of her baby. Her firstborn, a boy named Bilawal, arrived five weeks early, however, giving Benazir a month to regain her strength before the election campaign. "The baby outmaneuvered them all," said Bhutto. To further weaken her party's chances, the government instituted national identity cards for voters, eligibility for which the government controlled. Despite these obstacles, the PPP won a narrow victory in the November 1988 elections. After years of imprisonment and family sacrifices, Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan. Her mother Nusrat was appointed senior minister.

Benazir Bhutto's term of office was relatively brief, controversial, and turmoil-ridden. Civil liberties were restored and some steps were made to address the grinding poverty of the great majority of the nation's people. But civil disorder became common in the streets of the cities, and the military never trusted Benazir. Furthermore, a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement viewed the secular-oriented PPP with growing suspicion. In August 1990, the president removed Benazir Bhutto as prime minister, charging her with corruption and nepotism. Several months later, her husband, called by some "Mr. Ten Percent" for his eagerness to profit from some business transactions, was arrested and charged with participation in a kidnapping. Although the PPP did poorly in the elections of October 1990, both Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto remained in the National Assembly as leaders of the opposition, where they continued to speak out vigorously. In November 1992, Benazir Bhutto led a large protest march in Islamabad, charging the government with electoral fraud and other crimes. Though she was banned from the capital, her PPP remained the only hope for a better life for millions of Pakistanis. Basing much of her political strength in her native Sind province, at the end of the year she led a "long march" through the country, speaking to large and enthusiastic crowds.

In October 1993, a rejuvenated PPP won a plurality in the elections to the National Assembly, and heading a fragile coalition government Benazir Bhutto once again became prime minister of Pakistan. This time, however, there was considerably less euphoria about what she and her party could do for Pakistan in the short-term. The country remained mired in poverty, corruption, and crime. A huge foreign debt crippled hopes for economic expansion, while at the same time the nation's immensely wealthy and powerful feudal landlords paid virtually no taxes (not a single individual in the history of Pakistan had ever been prosecuted for tax evasion). With one of the highest birth rates in the world, Pakistan in the mid-1990s had a literacy rate no higher than 25%, an average per capita income of $400, and an educational situation in which most children never attended a school. In her second term as prime minister, Bhutto had to face bitter facts, virtually abandoning an ambitious agenda for social reform. With her acceptance of the economic austerity program dictated by the International Monetary Fund, spending for social programs had to be drastically curtailed and the economy remained stagnant at best. Women, while theoretically moving toward equal status with men, remained second-class citizens. In November 1996, Bhutto's government was again dismissed by political rivals who accused her of corruption; in reality, Pakistan's enormous foreign debt may have been the main cause. "The debt servicing is breaking our backs—debt that I didn't incur," Bhutto told Time magazine in September 1996. "But as Prime Minister, I have to pay it back." Whatever the specific outcome of her political efforts, Bhutto's achievements thus far have pointed the way for others to emulate.


Bhutto, Benazir. Daughter of Destiny: An Autobiography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

——. Pakistan: The Gathering Storm. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1983.

——. The Way Out: Interviews, Impressions, Statements, and Messages. Karachi: Mahmood Publications, 1988.

"Bhutto, Benazir," 1986 Current Biography Yearbook. NY: H.W. Wilson, pp. 39–42.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia