The Traditional Rebel
Benazir Bhutto Was a Woman Of Contradictions and Convictions

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 28, 2007

PARIS, Dec. 27--On a hazy winter day in 1994, I drove with then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to the dedication of Pakistan's first women's police station. A controversial and bold initiative, it would be a place where Muslim women would feel more at ease discussing abuses like rape with female officers rather than frequently skeptical male ones. The new police post was in Rawalpindi, the city where Bhutto would be killed 13 years later.

As we raced along the wide avenues of Islamabad in a caravan of security vehicles, I asked Bhutto if she'd like to see her children go into politics, too. She was in her second term as prime minister, following in the footsteps of her father, who also held that post but was overthrown in a military coup and executed in 1979.

"No, never," she said with conviction. "Politics in Pakistan is much too dangerous."

"What, then, would you like to see them do?" I asked the first woman ever elected leader of a Muslim country.

"I would like to see my son become a lawyer," she replied. "And I'd like my daughter to be a social worker."

Embracing such a stereotypical role for her daughter epitomized the contradictions of Benazir Bhutto, who served Pakistan amid great expectations and who ended up disappointing many of her strongest advocates, including members of her own family.

Her political career was born, as it died, of personal and national tragedy.

She was 24 when her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was ousted as prime minister in a military coup. He was hanged while Benazir and her mother were imprisoned in a nearby jail cell.

"I suddenly sat bolt upright in bed at 2 a.m.," she wrote in the opening of her autobiography, "Daughter of Destiny: An Autobiography," describing the night her father was executed.

"No! No!" she recalled screaming. "I couldn't breathe, didn't want to breathe. Papa! Papa! I felt cold, so cold, in spite of the heat, and couldn't stop shaking."

Bhutto spent five years in jail -- sometimes in solitary confinement in barren cells -- and under house arrest.

But the narrative of a family name so closely associated with martyrdom devolved into one of political intrigue, allegations of fraud and familial backbiting of epic proportions as Bhutto wound her way through Pakistan's contemporary history, ever the contradiction.

She was glamorous and photogenic. She was Western-educated, with degrees in political science from Radcliffe and Oxford.

Even so, she agreed to a traditional South Asian marriage, arranged by her mother to a man she barely knew, Asif Ali Zardari. He had the looks of a young Clark Gable, owned a Karachi construction company and a polo team, and was the son of another wealthy, land-owning family.

"I don't really expect people in the West to understand," she told the Los Angeles Times in an interview before the December 1987 wedding. "Every mother wants her daughter married and I felt obligations to my family and to my religion."

In one break from tradition, she ordered her family to pay no dowry for the marriage.

When Bhutto was elected prime minister of Pakistan the next year, she was idolized by many Pakistanis and had a near-fanatic following among the masses who were drawn to her charisma and the romance of her family's tragic history.

But, when she was voted prime minister for the second time in 1993, I watched from the press gallery as five conservative Muslim clerics who were members of the Parliament refused to participate in the vote -- one later deemed it improper for a woman to head the Islamic state.

While this was playing out below, I overheard the female editor of one of the country's top monthly newsmagazines giving her Pakistani colleagues a catty critique of Bhutto's clothing and sandals.

In my travels throughout Pakistan, I heard constant gripes about her poor Urdu language skills and her failure to keep her thick, dark hair from spilling out of her head scarf, considered unseemly for a devout Muslim woman.

Both her family and her husband's had deep tribal roots, and many of her countrymen criticized her for continuing to live and act like a feudal lord, accumulating wealth and political power at the expense of the less fortunate. Many Pakistanis complained that during her years in power, corruption and lawlessness flourished.

The allegations of corruption became almost legendary. A Swiss court found Bhutto guilty of money laundering and gave her a six-month suspended jail term; her husband served eight years in Pakistani jails on corruption and murder charges. The couple denied the allegations against them.

During her second term in office, even Bhutto's relatives turned against her in a feud pitting her mother and her brother against her in national political drama that exemplified the debate over the roles of men and women in conservative Islamic society. In a nasty, headline-grabbing brawl in which her brother, Murtaza, ran for office against a member of Bhutto's ruling party, her mother, Nusrat, sided with her son and declared her daughter's government "ruthless" and "worse than the days of the dictator."

"For me, it is a case of pure male prejudice," Bhutto told me the day we went to the new police station, in the kind of candid interview I would never expect from an American politician. "My mother has come on record as saying the male is the one who should inherit the crown."

Later, Bhutto's husband was charged with involvement in Murtaza's murder.

Thursday, Benazir Bhutto became the fourth member of her immediate family to die a violent death. It immediately drew me back to the car ride and her determination that her children not follow the fatal family path.

But Bhutto's seemingly compulsive attempt to try to lead her country for yet a third time brought back another image of this woman of contradictions fighting a different kind of compulsive desire.

When I arrived for the interview at the white marble prime ministerial residence in Islamabad that day, Bhutto was seated on a blue silk-cushioned chair. As I pulled up a chair across from her, she shoved a partially eaten box of chocolates toward me even as she complained about her battle with excess weight.

It was 8:30 in the morning.

Correspondent John Ward Anderson contributed to this report.

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