Pakistan owes Benazir Bhutto a lot
Perhaps Pakistan was not ready for Benazir Bhutto when she became her father’s political heir. After all, how many countries, even today, would be ready for a highly-educated, left-leaning, staunch democrat who understood the importance of constitutional survival.
And one who happened to be a woman.
Benazir Bhutto has remained the prototype of the Pakistani woman – resilient in the face of adversity, brave, and perhaps ahead of her times.
During her time in power, as an opposition member, and after her demise, Bhutto left an everlasting impact on the Islamic Republic’s struggle for a peaceful and inclusive democracy.
Bhutto rose in the world of Pakistan’s murky politics where one elected civilian could not be distinguished from a military man in political office — that’s how often and in quick succession political power changed hands from democracy to dictatorship.
Obscure graffiti unwittingly sprawled in the Islamabad of the 80’s said on one wall that “we apologize for the democratic interruption, normal marshal law should be resumed shortly” — an accurate reflection of the times we lived in.
After the judicial assassination of Bhutto’s father in 1979, two years after dictator Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in Pakistan, she witnessed something which was inevitable – the beginning of a political dynasty.
In 1981, a movement for the restoration of democracy, led by Bhutto, was formed. It was the largest populist alliance made up of mainly left wing political parties with two main purposes – to oppose military rule and the restoration of democracy.
At the heart of the democratic movement was defiance and it saw many forms being projected by ordinary citizens. I was born during Zia’s reign and when my name was officially registered, my father was suspended from his government job for three months.
So astute was young Bhutto’s understanding of the overbearing impact of the military apparatus and the importance of de-militarizing Pakistan’s politics from it that Benazir’s name itself became synonymous with democracy, progressive values, and one which was against the military establishment.
Pakistan was divided fiercely between those who supported Zia and were completely against everything Bhutto stood for versus those who opposed in all its forms what Zia’s religiously-led governance represented.
They still blame his 11-year rule for Pakistan’s problems of religious fundamentalism, discriminatory laws against women and minorities, and deep-rooted misogyny.
It’s ironic that Pakistan was never as idealistic and hopeful, as it was during this bleakest of times. With this democracy movement sprung several more, including the women’s movement in Pakistan, which has been the radical and daring opposition’s deep-rooted patriarchy even today. The women’s movement, along with other left leaning movements, gave further legitimacy to the democracy movement.
So astute was young Bhutto’s understanding of the overbearing impact of the military apparatus and the importance of de-militarizing Pakistan’s politics from it that Benazir’s name itself became synonymous with democracy and progressive values.
Bhutto’s resistance paid off and in 1988 she won the popular vote to form her first elected government, as the first Muslim woman to govern a Muslim country. She was 35 years old. We all heard voices that a woman could not be the leader of a Muslim country. That never stuck and she won a second election in 1993.
Unfortunately, both her governments were dismissed much before they could complete their five-year tenure due to charges of corruption and bad governance.
At this time, with her impeccable oratory skills, Bhutto warned us that the dismissal was blatant political victimization; a way to weaken democracy, thereby silencing those who believed in the supremacy of civilian rule.
Many at that time argued that could be her only defense. Recently, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government was dismissed on similar charges, with him being given a seven-year jail term earlier this week.
Now those who opposed Bhutto and her strong reservation of selective accountability are waking up to the reality Bhutto warned us about: In Pakistan the ballot box is not where Pakistan’s political future is always decided.
Yet, Bhutto’s legacy reached far beyond anchoring Pakistan toward democracy. For women, Bhutto’s first and second terms allowed a policy shift to favor women’s visibility, something successive governments have been unable to ignore.
Bhutto introduced the largest state-led program of the Lady Health Worker, which is the largest community health worker initiative in the world and has brought public facilities to the doorsteps of families in remote areas.
For Pakistan, it is considered a radical move because it addresses family planning and women’s health rights – a taboo topic in a highly-patriarchal and conservative set up.
Recognizing that women’s economic empowerment was imperative, the first nationalized commercial bank for women was set up. The all-important UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was signed during Bhutto’s time and a federal Ministry for Women’s Development was also established. Bhutto’s belief in social welfare services, where women beneficiaries are catered to, was realized after her death by way of the largest social protection net in Pakistan known as the Benazir Income Support Programme.
Bhutto’s struggle for a democratic and inclusive Pakistan resonated at home and with ordinary people all over the world and her homecoming in 2007 was watched keenly across the globe.
In 2007, the first attempt on her life showed that her life was fragile and held true that religious extremists in Pakistan were always against Bhutto and what she represented.
This did not deter Bhutto, who had said to a friend before returning, “we need to get Pakistan democratic again.”
– Benazir Jatoi is a barrister, working Islamabad, whose work focuses on women, girls and minority rights. She is a regular contributor to the op-ed pages in Pakistan newspapers.