Benazir Bhutto was the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan and was the first woman to be the democratically elected head of state for a Muslim majority country. She is half Pakistani and half Iranian Kurdish and has three younger siblings. She attended Harvard and Oxford, studying philosophy, politics, economics, international law and diplomacy. She was also the first Asian woman to be head of the debate society, Oxford Union.


Like many trailblazers she faced some fierce opposition, even before she was on the path to leadership. She was the daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the early 1970’s. A military coup in 1977 placed Benazir and her family under house arrest. During this time Benazir’s father was accused of conspiracy to commit murder and his family fought the charges, but he was executed in 1979 and his family was transferred to a police camp. Within two years Benazir and her family were arrested seven times. She had to spend several months in hospital to recover from the conditions of the various house arrests. In 1984 after six years of imprisonment she was allowed to leave Pakistan to receive surgery for an undisclosed condition. While living in the UK she became leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and put pressure on the current regime to hold valid elections. She fought against the human rights violations of the regime by addressing the European Parliament, which resulted in the execution of several members of the PPP still in Pakistan and the death of her brother (suspected poisoning).  

She married Asif Ali Zardari in 1987 and the couple had three children together. Her first daughter, Bakhtawar, gave her the distinction of being the first modern head of government to give birth while in office. It wasn’t until 1988, when the regime leader died in a plane crash that Benazir returned to Pakistan and the country hosted its first open elections in years. In that election Benazir became Prime Minister. Her first term was only two years and during that time she struggled to overturn some of the more devastating pieces of legislation put in place by her predecessor. She did manage to smooth relations with India for a while, though it eventually broke down again. I’m not an expert on the political relations and history between India and Pakistan so I won’t go into it further here. She worked hard to improve the technology in Pakistan, including IT, nuclear and aerospace technology.

After serving as Prime Minister she served as Leader of the Opposition and was placed under house arrest again. There was even a campaign designed to discredit her and demoralize her followers, but the campaign fell apart when it was realized that the current PM, Sharif, was doing it for his own benefit. After her term as Leader of the Opposition she campaigned again to be PM and was successful, ruling the country from 1993-96. During this time she appointed a president with little experience in politics and it seems this was primarily so she could have full control without another president opposing her direction as Sharif had done. She shared the title of “Iron Lady” with England’s Margaret Thatcher. She made some rather questionable decisions in aggressively targeting all opposition during a turbulent and violent period. Additionally Operation Clean Up, started by her predecessor and continued during her reign, is considered to be one of the bloodiest periods of modern history in Karachi.

During her reign she had initially promised to repeal laws that restricted the rights of women, but made little progress with that.

She served again as Leader of the Opposition from 1996-99. Although it was thought she would run again after this term to be PM, her opposition imprisoned many of her prominent supporters and also instituted a law that banned PM’s from serving more than two terms. This law was instituted just before Benazir was set to run again, a clear step to prevent her from gaining power again since she and her party were gaining considerable support that made the current leading party nervous. Shortly after this Benazir moved her family to Dubai where she cared for her children and ailing mother while her husband served a prison term for charges of corruption. A few years after the family was reunited, Benazir made the decision to return to Pakistan, well aware that returning from her self-imposed exile would prove dangerous. She was assassinated in 2007.

Accusations of corruption and nepotism plagued both her and her father’s rule. Benazir was no stranger to scandal and at times she was considered authoritarian and underestimated by many of those around her. There was certainly controversy in the reign of Benazir Bhutto, but she represents a step forward for women in Pakistan and for the world.

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