Benazir Bhutto was born on 21 June 1953; she was the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan and the leader of the Centre-left Pakistan People’s Party. She was the first woman to head a Muslim majority nation, and the only one to head it twice.
Benazir Bhutto was born at Karachi’s Pinto Hospital on 21 June 1953. She was the eldest child of Sindhi Rajput Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Begum Nusrat Ispahani, of Iranian Kurdish descent. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, was Prime Minister of Pakistan and founding chairman of the PPP. She had three younger siblings: Murtaza, Shahnawaz and Sanam. According to Benazir, her mother’s Kurdish culture played a big role in Bhutto becoming Prime Minister.
Bhutto grew up speaking both English and Urdu, with English her first language. While she spoke fluent Urdu, it was often colloquial rather than formal. In her autobiography ‘Daughter of the East’, Bhutto also makes reference to using Sindhi, joking about misunderstanding the “Mohenjo-daro”. According to various interviews given by former household servants, she and her father would speak to them in their native Sindhi.
She attended the Lady Jennings Nursery School and the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Karachi. After two years at the Rawalpindi Presentation Convent, she was sent to the Jesus and Mary Convent at Murree. She passed her O-level examinations at 15. She then completed her A-Levels at the Karachi Grammar School. She pursued her higher education in the United States; from 1969 to 1973 she attended Radcliffe College at Harvard University, where she obtained a BA with cum laude honors in comparative government. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Bhutto later called her time at Harvard “four of the happiest years of my life” and said it formed “the very basis of her belief in democracy”. In 1995, as Prime Minister, she arranged a gift from the Pakistani government to Harvard Law School.
Between 1973 and 1977 Bhutto studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (LMH) and took additional courses in International Law and Diplomacy. After LMH she attended St Catherine’s College, Oxford. In December 1976 Bhutto was elected president of the Oxford Union, and became the first Asian woman to head the prestigious debating society. Her undergraduate career was dogged by controversy, partly due to her father’s unpopularity with student politicians. She was also president of the Oxford Majlis Asian Society.
She also served as the first Asian woman to preside over the Oxford Union. After the 1977 military coup which overthrew her father’s government, Benazir along with her family were repeatedly placed under house arrest. After her father was hanged in 1979 Benazir, along with her mother Nusrat, went on to lead the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy while still under house arrest. In 1984 Benazir, along with her family, left for London where she resided until 1988. After her return, Benazir successfully led the People’s Party through the 1988 election. On 18 December 1987, Bhutto married Asif Ali Zardari in Karachi. The couple had three children: two daughters, Bakhtawar and Asifa, and a son, Bilawal. When she gave birth to Bakhtawar in 1990, she became the first modern head of government to give birth while in office.
After winning support from a coalition government in the national assembly, Benazir assumed the Prime Minister’s Office in December 1988. Benazir however struggled to maintain control over power, marked by political and economic instability. Benazir’s government was dismissed on August 7 1990 by the then President who accused her administration of corruption and nepotism. Benazir went on to once again lead her party through the 1990 election, however failed to win a parliamentary majority. Later in 2012, Pakistan’s Supreme Court would rule that the 1990 election was rigged by the ISI in favor of the conservative IJI. Despite electoral fraud, Benazir served as the Leader of the Opposition until the conservative government was also dismissed in 1996 over charges of corruption.
Bhutto successfully led her party to victory in the 1993 parliamentary elections and once again became the prime minister. Her second term was marked with several controversies including the assassination of her brother Murtaza. Her husband and member of her cabinet Asif Ali Zardari was indicted for the murder but later exonerated. Even though her government survived an attempted coup d’état in 1995, she and her husband were accused of a bribery scandal around a deal with Dassault, once again leading the President to dismiss her government over a series of graft charges. Her husband went on to serve eight years in prison while she led her party to an unsuccessful re-election campaign during the 1997 election.
In 1998, Benazir went into self-exile to her estate in Emirates Hills in Dubai, leading her party mainly through proxies. Her reputation was damaged by a widening corruption inquiry, a 1998 New York Times investigative report traced more than $100 million in offshore assets to Benazir and her family. She returned to Pakistan in 2007 after she was granted amnesty on corruption charges as part of a controversial agreement. In October 2007, Benazir returned to Karachi, where her campaign bus came under attack leaving dozens of her supporters dead, while she remained safe.
Benazir’s career has been celebrated as a triumph for women in the Muslim world and for the global fight against Islamic extremism. At the same time, she is accused of corruption and bad governance. Her death was followed by the victory of People’s Party led by her husband, Asif, and son Bilawal, with the former becoming Pakistan’s president in 2008. The Guardian, writing about Benazir, termed her “(both) a victim, as well as in part a culprit, of its (Pakistan’s) chronic instability”. Writing her obituary, The New York Times referred her as “a woman of grand aspirations with a taste for complex political maneuverings”. Several universities and public buildings in Pakistan bear Benazir’s name, while her career influenced a number of activists including Malala Yousafzai. She authored two books, including Daughter of the East and Reconciliation.
On 27 December 2007, Benazir Bhutto was killed while leaving a campaign rally for the PPP at Liaquat National Bagh in the run-up to the January 2008 parliamentary elections. After entering her bulletproof vehicle, Bhutto stood up through its sunroof to wave to the crowds. At this point, a gunman fired shots at her, and subsequently explosives were detonated near the vehicle killing approximately 20 people. Bhutto was critically wounded and was rushed to Rawalpindi General Hospital. She was taken into surgery at 17:35 local time, and pronounced dead at 18:16. The cause of death, whether it was gunshot wounds, the explosion, or a combination thereof, was not fully determined until February 2008. Eventually, Scotland Yard investigators concluded that it was due to blunt force trauma to the head as she was tossed by the explosion. She was buried next to her father in the Bhutto family mausoleum, Garhi Khuda Baksh, her family graveyard near Larkana.
Al-Qaeda commander Mustafa Abu al-Yazid claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Pakistani government stated that it had proof that Baitullah Mehsud, affiliated with Lashkar i Jhangvi an al-Qaeda-linked militant group was the mastermind. However this was vigorously disputed by the Bhutto family, the PPP that Bhutto had headed, and by Mehsud. On 12 February 2011, an Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi issued an arrest warrant for Musharraf, claiming he was aware of an impending assassination attempt by the Taliban, but did not pass the information on to those responsible for protecting Bhutto. After the assassination, there were initially a number of riots resulting in approximately 20 deaths, of which three were of police officers. President Musharraf decreed a three-day period of mourning.
On 26 April 2013 a court ordered house arrest for Musharraf in connection with the death of Bhutto, and on 3 May 2013, Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, the special prosecutor in charge of the investigation of Bhutto’s murder was killed in Islamabad when attackers on a motorcycle sprayed his car with bullets as he drove to the courthouse. Bhutto’s 19-year-old son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari succeeded his mother as titular head of the PPP, with his father effectively running the party until his son completes his studies at Christ Church, Oxford. Benazir Bhutto, the Iron Lady, remains respected among her rivals, and is often remembered with good wishes. Her rivals always referred to her as “BB” and have never called her by her actual name in accordance to her respect. Benazir Bhutto is often seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment and today parties from across Pakistan’s political spectrum allow women to be part of their organization and to fully participate in elections.
Her efforts and struggle to save her father and democracy remain a lasting legacy that is deeply respected among her rivals. The Pakistani government honored Bhutto on her birthday by renaming Islamabad’s airport Benazir Bhutto International Airport, Muree Road of Rawalpindi as Benazir Bhutto Road and Rawalpindi General Hospital as Benazir Bhutto Hospital. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, a member of Bhutto’s PPP, also asked President Pervez Musharraf to pardon convicts on death row on her birthday in honor of Bhutto. The city of Nawabshah in Sindh was renamed Benazirabad in her honor. A university in the Dir Upper district of NWFP was founded in her name. Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), a program which provides benefits to the poorest Pakistanis, is named after Bhutto.