Remembering Benazir Bhutto

Three years ago today, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. It was a dark day that indelibly changed the direction of Pakistan and I am torn both by personal and political reflections.

I was blessed and honoured not only to assist Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto in the field of communications but also to know her personally. So for me, December 27 is doubly tragic — I miss her skill, her leadership, what she could have accomplished politically for our people. But I also miss her laughter, her humour, her loving attention to her family and her friends. I miss her every day, and I weep for all the ‘might have beens’ if she hadn’t been so brutally assassinated ahead of her greatest electoral triumph.

Some in our chattering class, speaking from the comfort of their couches and their salons, gossip and criticise and dismiss her accomplishments. How many of them — if they had her brilliance, her education at Harvard and Oxford, her beauty, her youth, her family wealth, her loving husband and children — would have sacrificed everything out of personal responsibility and commitment to the people of Pakistan? She had everything to live for. She could have had a life that anyone of us would have only dreamed of. Yet she came back fearlessly to lead us because of her faith in God and the people of Pakistan.

There are tens of thousands of primary and secondary schools across our country that were built during her government. There are thousands of villages that got electricity. There is healthcare in our rural areas because of her programme of 100,000 women health workers being trained in nutrition and pre and post-natal care. There are women abused by domestic violence who can now go to women’s police stations for help. There are computers, fiber optics, cell phones, access to CNN and BBC, an uncensored media and an independent civil society because of her vision. And there are 90 million women in Pakistan who refuse to accept limits on their futures because she broke the glass ceiling for all of us, shattering not only the glass but her very life in the process.

On her first day in office in 1988, she freed all political prisoners, she made student and labour unions legal, she made civil society truly ‘civil’ again, she uncensored the media and opened it, for the first time in Pakistani history, to the political opposition.

And all of that was on her first day. During the 1800 days that she served as our prime minister, she built on this record of human rights, not only in rhetoric but in practice. She appointed women for the first time in our history to superior courts. She freed Pakistani women and girl athletes to compete in international competitions. She created a Women’s Development Bank to provide loans to women to start businesses across Pakistan.

Her accomplishments are not recognised by obscurantists because they do not agree with her vision. Some others fail to appreciate the odds she overcame.

Benazir Bhutto didn’t fear dictators or tyrants. She threw down the gauntlet to jihadists and terrorists and was the face of a modern, enlightened and loving Islam to a world that had condemned us to caricature.

She alone dared to challenge Ziaul Haq in the 1980s and Pervez Musharraf in the new century. Because of her, Pakistan strives to build a thriving and robust democracy, with our constitution restored and the vestiges of dictatorship purged from the laws of our land. No one can take that away from her. And no one will ever be able to take that away from us. Benazir Bhutto was the bravest person I have ever known. She was also the smartest, the most visionary and the most selfless. She didn’t live for herself, she lived for us. And, tragically, she died for us. For me, for Pakistan, and for the entire world, she is irreplaceable.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2010.

Written by Farahnaz Ispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. She is the author of the recently published book "Purifying the Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan's Religious Minorities. Oxford University Press, 2017. Ms. Farahnaz Ispahani has been a leading voice for women and religious minorities in Pakistan for the past twenty five years, first as a journalist, then as a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, and most recently as a scholar based in the United States. An advocate of Pakistan’s return to democracy during the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, she served as a spokesperson and international media coordinator for the Pakistan People’s Party, working alongside the late Benazir Bhutto. During her tenure in parliament (2008–2012), she was a member of the Human Rights Committee and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. In 2013–2014, she served as a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she completed a book on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. In 2012, she was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, as well as Newsweek Pakistan’s Top 100 Women Who Matter. During her fellowship, Ms. Ispahani is exploring women’s political participation in the Muslim world, both in terms of their progress toward gender equality under democratic systems and the converse rise of women as agents of extremist propaganda within the world of the Islamic State. FARAHNAZ ISPAHANI is Senior Fellow, South and South East Asia Action Team at Religious Freedom Institute also.

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