A Life Reflecting Her Country's Contradictions

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto knew the violence of political life in Pakistan from an early age, but she continued her commitment to democracy despite the threats against her. Bhutto was fatally shot at age 54 on Dec. 27, 2007, at a political rally in Rawalpindi.
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 28, 2007

With her luminous eyes and strong features framed by a flowing white head scarf, Benazir Bhutto was the face of Pakistan's democratic hopes -- a face that had been thrust into the limelight with the execution of her father in 1979 and that remained there, aging gracefully, until her assassination in Pakistan on Thursday.

Bhutto, 54, was a charismatic but controversial political leader whose highly magnified life was marked by vertiginous twists of fate -- family tragedies, political triumphs and defeats, accusations of corruption and autocracy -- that often led to comparisons with the Kennedy clan in the United States and the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty of India.

Following in the footsteps of her father, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, she was twice chosen as Pakistan's prime minister in the late 1980s and the 1990s, but was also twice driven from office amid charges of corruption and incompetence. This winter, after years of self-imposed exile, Bhutto was attempting to stage a high-risk political comeback that could have led to a third term as premier in elections next month.

Instead, Bhutto's slaying, which occurred at the site where Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was gunned down in 1951, seemed destined to plunge her fragile homeland into political free fall, vulnerable both to the predations of increasingly violent Islamic extremist forces and to the resulting temptations of military control.

Benazir Bhutto was a woman of many contradictions. Her complex personality and tumultuous career reflected the deep social schisms and paralyzing political power struggles of the vast, impoverished country she briefly governed and long represented as a flawed but passionate advocate for change.

She was born June 21, 1953, into a life of feudal privilege and wealth in a highly stratified society, then sent to boarding schools and on European vacations in sports cars while millions of her illiterate countrymen toiled in brick kilns and wheat fields for pennies a day. Yet she went on to become a champion of popular democracy who headed her country's closest equivalent to a secular Western movement, the Pakistan People's Party.

Bhutto, nicknamed "Pinkie" for her rosy complexion, was a graduate of Radcliffe College and Oxford University who spoke cultured English and moved easily through the drawing rooms of London and Georgetown. Yet she also submitted to a traditional arranged marriage and, while speaking up for the rights of women in Muslim societies, was always careful to publicly observe the stylistic dictates of her religion.

Bhutto broke with family tradition by not covering her face with a veil in public. Instead, her white head scarf, known as a dupatta, became her political trademark -- a symbolic bridge between tradition and modernity. She was often shown in photographs adjusting the scarf modestly over her hair as she delivered ringing, impassioned speeches on foreign policy or economic reform.

She was a highly disciplined and wily politician who kept a grip on her party, remaining its lifelong president and making all its decisions, even during her long exile in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Despite her cult status as a democratic leader, she flirted opportunistically with military power-sharing and attempted rapprochement with Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban rulers when it seemed expedient.

Above all, she was her father's daughter, inspired by his stories of Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and raised with foreign democratic leaders at the dinner table. Then in 1977, a military coup plucked Pinkie from carefree college life. Her father was thrown into prison, tried on dubious charges of corruption and murder conspiracy and finally hanged in 1979 on orders from Pakistan's dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

In an autobiography, "Daughter of Destiny," Bhutto described in revealing detail her youthful visits to her father in prison, especially her memories of his dignity and determination under squalid, humiliating conditions and in the face of death. His own autobiography, written from prison, was titled "If I Am Assassinated."

Later, Bhutto faced her own ordeal of house arrest, prison and exile, but she emerged toughened and determined to carry on her father's legacy as a secular reformer. It was a goal she pursued, with deviations into unsavory political intrigue and the temptations of personal power, for the rest of her life.

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