Beliefnet
The Queen of My Self

In honor of Aung San Suu Kyi and to celebrate her release, and with a nod to Election Day, this week’s theme is admirable women leaders of democracy.

Benazir Bhutto  June 21, 1953 – December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto, twice the popularly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated in Rawalpindi at a campaign rally for her reelection. She was 54 years old.

Bhutto was born in Karachi, Pakistan to a prominent political family. At 16 she left her homeland to study at Harvard’s Radcliffe College where she completed her undergraduate degree. She obtained her graduate degree at Oxford University in England in 1977.
 
Later that year she returned to Pakistan where her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been elected prime minister, but days after her arrival, the military seized power and had her father imprisoned and ultimately hanged.

Bhutto herself was also arrested many times over the following years, and was detained for three years before being permitted to leave the country in 1984. She settled in London, where along with her two brothers, she founded an underground organization to resist the military dictatorship. When she returned to Pakistan in 1985 for her brother’s burial, she was again arrested for participating in anti-government rallies.

After her release, she went back to London but returned to Pakistan in 1986 to join the seething anti-government movement. The public response to her return was tumultuous, and she publicly called for the resignation of Zia Ul Haq, whose government had executed her father. Her personal grief never embittered her. Democracy was the best revenge.

When free elections were finally held in 1988, she became Prime Minister. At 35, she was one of the youngest chief executives in the world, and the first woman to serve as prime minister in an Islamic country.

“I had faith in myself. I had always felt that I could become Prime Minister if I wanted.
 
Only two years into her first term, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Bhutto from office. She initiated an anti-corruption campaign, and in 1993 was re-elected as Prime Minister.

Bhutto’s platform has always been leftist, including food for the hungry, health care, jobs, slum clearance, housing, and a monthly minimum wage. While in office, she brought electricity to the countryside and built schools all over the country, and looked forward to continuing to modernize Pakistan.

In 1996 the Guinness Book of Records named her “The world’s most popular politician.” Due to Queen Benazir’s personal world popularity, Pakistan’s relation with other countries improved during her terms. Her moderate foreign policy has been credited for improving the wrong image of Pakistan around the world, however domestically she and her party have been widely blamed for excessive corruption.

President Leghari of Pakistan dismissed Benazir Bhutto from office in 1996, alleging mismanagement, and dissolved the National Assembly. A Bhutto re-election bid failed in 1997, and the next elected government, headed by conservatives, was overthrown by the military. Bhutto’s husband was imprisoned, and once again, she was forced to leave her homeland. 

For nine years, she and her three children lived in exile in London and Bahrain, where she continued to advocate the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Finally, in the face of death threats from radical Islamists, and the hostility of the Musharraf government, she returned to her native country on October 18, 2007 to seek reelection as Prime Minister.

“It’s true that General Musharraf opposes my return, seeing me as a symbol of democracy in the country. He is comfortable with dictatorship. I hope better sense prevails.”
 
She was greeted by enthusiastic crowds, and within hours of her arrival, her motorcade was attacked by a suicide bomber. She survived this first assassination attempt, although more than 100 bystanders died in the attack. With national elections scheduled for January 2008, her Pakistan People’s Party was poised for a victory that would make Bhutto prime minister once again.

She returned to Pakistan because she was a genuine leader who felt that the battle for democracy in Pakistan was her calling. A brave woman undeterred by the repeated threats of death, Queen Benazir walked on to Pakistan’s deadly political stage to make the ultimate sacrifice. She fought for people’s rights until her last.

The next few months are critical to Pakistan’s future direction as a democratic state committed to promoting peace, fighting terrorism and working for social justice.

Only a few weeks before the election, the extremists struck again. A gunman fired at her car before detonating a bomb, killing himself and more than 20 bystanders. Bhutto was rushed to the hospital, but soon succumbed to injuries suffered in the attack.

In the wake of her death, rioting erupted throughout the country. The loss of the country’s most popular democratic leader plunged Pakistan into turmoil, intensifying the dangerous instability of a nuclear-armed nation in a highly volatile region.

Queen Benazir leaves a legacy of a courageous no-holds-barred struggle for democracy. At her final rally she thundered: “Your country and my country is at risk. This government cannot handle this. We will defend it. We will handle it through people’s force.”

In her last speeches, she repeatedly said that she wanted a place in people’s hearts. This she has certainly found. In her death, Benazir has become the inspiration and rallying cry for millions fighting for a democratic Pakistan. Nasim Zehra, an Islamabad-based national security strategist eulogized her by writing, “For millions she is the queen of hearts.”

“Democracy is necessary to peace and to undermining the forces of terrorism.”

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The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

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