Bhutto, Nusrat (1929—)

views updated

Bhutto, Nusrat (1929—)

First lady of Pakistan and head of the Pakistan People's Party who was imprisoned from 1977 to 1980. Name variations: Begum Nusrat Bhutto (Begum refers to a Muslim princess or woman of high rank). Born Nusrat Isphahani in Bombay, India, on March 23, 1929; daughter of Mirza Mohamed Isphahani and Fatima Sultana Isphahani; married Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1951; children: two daughters, including Benazir Bhutto (b. 1953), and two sons, including Shahwanaz (d. 1985).

Captain in Women's National Guard (1947–48); First Lady of Pakistan (1971–77); served as chair, Pakistan Red Crescent Society (1974–77; elected to National Assembly (1977); imprisoned (1977–80); served as chair, Pakistan People's Party, and leading member of Movement for the Restoration of Democracy; member, National Assembly (1988—).

Born in Bombay, India, in 1929 into a wealthy mercantile family of Iranian background, Nusrat Isphahani grew up in a world of privilege and leisure. In 1951, she became the second wife of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose family wealth was based on their long-established ownership of large estates in the Sind district of West Pakistan, making the Bhutto clan a leading political force in that region of the country. In the first years of their marriage, which saw the birth of two sons and two daughters, the couple lived in semi-feudal opulence on the Bhutto estate of Al-Murtaza near the town of Larkana.

Zulfikar Bhutto, who had been politically inactive as a university lecturer, made a rapid political ascent after the creation of a military dictatorship in 1958 by General Ayub Khan. Zulfikar went from United Nations delegate to commerce minister, energy minister, head of the United Nations delegation, and finally minister of foreign affairs. Nusrat usually accompanied her husband on his many trips abroad while their children were cared for by an English governess and an extensive household staff. Though Nusrat was a Shi`ite Muslim and Zulfikar was from the Sunni branch, they had few if any differences in religion. Indeed, they agreed that their children would attend Roman Catholic convent schools; the schools did not require conversion to Christianity for admission. They agreed as well that their children should receive a Western college education. (Zulfikar Bhutto had graduated from Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley.)

In 1969, Nusrat Bhutto accompanied her eldest child, 16-year-old daughter Benazir Bhutto , to the United States to supervise her enrollment at Radcliffe College, the women's undergraduate branch of Harvard University. After remaining for several weeks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nusrat left, pleased that Benazir was in good hands with John Kenneth Galbraith and Catherine Atwater Galbraith , old friends who would act as Benazir's "parents in residence."

The next few years saw major changes in Pakistan, where a corrupt government was swept out of office in December 1971 as a result of the loss of East Pakistan, which became the Republic of Bangladesh. As the nation yearned for reforms, Zulfikar Bhutto, who had several years earlier founded a reformist Pakistan People's Party (PPP), became president of the country on December 20. He became prime minister in August 1973.

Many reforms were instituted during Zulfikar Bhutto's term of office, including land reforms, electrification efforts and minimum-wage legislation. To signal a change in attitude toward the rights of and opportunities for women, the civil service and police force were opened to them for the first time. Dramatizing these moves toward female emancipation, Nusrat headed the Pakistani delegation to the International Conference on Women held in Mexico City. In 1977, she was elected to the National Assembly, but in July of that year Zulfikar's government fell due to riots and political chaos. The new rulers charged him with the murder of a fellow politician's father and placed him under house arrest; he was hanged in April 1979. With her husband's death, Nusrat became head of the PPP, although in reality the power had largely passed to her daughter Benazir. Soon, Nusrat was also arrested and was imprisoned at the central jail in Karachi. Although she was released in 1980, there were indications that her health had been permanently impaired as a result of her incarceration. Fortunately, a malignancy on one of her lungs responded to medical treatment in Germany in 1982.

As the Pakistani government became more dictatorial throughout the 1980s, Nusrat and Benazir Bhutto increased the pressure of the PPP on the regime. In July 1986, she and her daughter were elected co-chairs of the party. Nusrat also persuaded Benazir to enter into an arranged marriage in July 1987 with a man she considered a suitable candidate, Asif Zardari; mother assured daughter that, unlike in the West, love would come after the marriage.

When the dictator General Zia was killed in a mysterious plane crash, the way was opened for major political changes, and in 1988 Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan. Few were surprised when Nusrat Bhutto was appointed senior minister, a post that made it possible for Benazir to await the delivery of her second child (a daughter, in January 1990) while her mother retained a firm family grip on power.

In August 1990, the president dismissed Benazir, charging corruption and nepotism. The entire Bhutto clan was accused of having misused its power to enrich itself. Many in the impoverished nation took the charges seriously, even if detailed proof was lacking. Though Benazir served a second term as prime minister from 1993 to 1996, she was once again dismissed with charges of corruption. For Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto, a particularly dismaying aspect of losing power was the reversion to certain aspects of traditional Islamic law which subjugated women.


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

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