Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Benazir Bhutto: A Glimpse Beyond the Veil

When former Prime Minister of Pakistan and Chair of the People’s Party Benazir Bhutto visited the Boston area to speak at a women’s conference in the spring of 2005, this writer had an opportunity to hear her remarks and interview her face-to-face. After our time together, I felt I had been offered a glimpse into the various personas that comprised Benazir Bhutto – charismatic leader, women’s rights activist, caring mother, and supportive wife and daughter.

Dressed in traditional Pakistani garb while sipping a cup of hot tea, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto exuded an air of quiet dignity and grace as we sat down to discuss a variety of issues from women’s rights, to the possibility of democracy in Pakistan at the time.
Throughout the interview, the twice-ousted leader was calm and poised while sharing her thoughts about what it was like to be the exiled ruler of a country in turmoil. Her comments were at once thoughtful and candid, as she pondered the state of affairs in the world at large, as well as her more personal sphere.

Offering a Message of Hope Amidst Despair

Reflecting on the overall situation in her country, Bhutto offered a message of hope and optimism, adding, “The forces of extremism and hate seem to be in retreat. Fear and intimidation are being overcome by hope. I see a rare opportunity for change in the world in the areas of democracy, human rights, and pluralism.”

She spoke about the state of the Muslim world in the aftermath of 9/11. Herself in voluntary exile since 1999, Bhutto said there had been a sea change in the Muslim community, adding that Islamic nations were looking for leaders to revive the values of Islam, which she defined as human rights and human dignity.

“The image of Islam has been tainted. The actions of terrorism contradict the basic tenets of Islam, and terrorism contradicts the teachings of Islam. Islam is committed to tolerance, equity, the principles of democracy, and universal education.” But, she cautioned, the war against terrorism was not over. Bhutto said she felt there was still an embittered generation of Muslim youth who viewed conquest as important, which, in turn, fueled the terrorist mentality. She believed a confused message existed, adding that part of this confusion stemmed from the idea that many Pakistani people felt they could benefit from a dictatorship. In fact, she added, many don’t want a democracy.

Debating how Islam could fight back, Bhutto maintained that the fight could be won through logic and reason, stating that we need to learn from history. “It takes patience and perseverance to uphold a political system. Short-term solutions can have a backlash. Democracy is not an event; it is a process and the roots of democracy must be cultivated, nurtured.”

The former Prime Minister said she felt strongly that now was the time to act, not just when it was politically convenient. “We are in search of leaders who value human dignity; we need to reinstate a democratic society, and need to endorse models that enhance the dignity of the individual.”

The Need for a Balanced Life

Shifting her focus to the plight of women leaders, the former Prime Minister spoke about the struggle of women worldwide who try to balance the often opposing roles of family and career.
Reflecting on the goal of a balanced life, Bhutto said, “I don’t think you can balance. A woman has to make a basic decision if she really wants to get to the top of the ladder. I think women have to work so much harder than men… a woman has to make that extra sacrifice or she has to decide that she doesn’t want to get to the top.”

Bhutto commented that she was raised to believe a woman could become a prime minister and so it was not surprising to her that she was elected. In fact, she knew the People’s Party supporters were convinced she could become Prime Minister. However, what surprised her were all the people who thought that a woman shouldn’t be Prime Minister.

“I knew people were opposed to women in politics, but I never knew the extent to which they could go; the religious fervor that could be built up almost bordering on accusing me of blasphemy for having usurped a man’s place. That philosophy took me by surprise.”

A Circuitous Climb to the Top

How did she embark on her own rise to power? Bhutto said that initially she had no desire to go into politics, and originally considered a career in journalism or an ambassadorship position. But, she added, in the Muslim culture, you don’t have a choice. “My father told me what to do. He sent me to Harvard and as a good daughter, I listened to him.”

Recalling her days as a student at Radcliff and Harvard, Bhutto talked about the phenomenon referred to as “fear of failure/fear of success” and how it impacted her as a leader at the time of her father’s assassination.

“After we won the government I found that this fear of failure (was) always there because I always felt that I was being judged as a woman…. I would find at times I was holding myself back. I didn’t know whether this policy, this plan, this program was actually going to succeed… (maybe) people would see that I was a woman and made a mess of it. Yet I would always think of …. my father and that the important thing is to do what is right and forget about winning and losing. And then you win.”

Bhutto said that being cast into the role of Prime Minister after her father’s assassination was traumatic. “But, these kinds of things you don’t expect, you don’t choose; sometimes circumstances choose you.” She explained that in her country tradition also played a role in leadership positions. “When someone is assassinated, it is traditional for a family member to continue to rule.”

The former Prime Minister also shared some encouraging words while reflecting on the idea of women leaders today. “Women sometimes give up. We are more sensitive than men and we get more easily hurt by rejection and then tend not to try again. Don’t give up. Stick it out. Be patient. I think the best advice is to try and try again and don’t give up.”

Remembered as a Role Model for Women

Although admitting it was difficult to pinpoint what she would most like to be remembered for during her “tenure,” Bhutto again returned to the subject of women. “There is so much to be done in Pakistan. We introduced privatization; we built schools; we did so much, but in the end, if I have to be remembered for something, I have to be remembered for being a woman.”

The charismatic leader said she felt her success as a leader paved the way for other women across the Muslim world, as well as the world at large. “So many other women have told me that they took a stand because I succeeded. In that sense I have had enormous satisfaction from knowing that I could be helpful to other women who faced similar challenges,” she added, mentioning former Prime Minister of London, Margaret Thatcher, and former Prime Minister of India, Indira Ghandi, as role models.

As for the role of women in Pakistan, Bhutto emphasized the importance of women’s rights. “The Pakistan People’s Party is committed to the equality of women, the end of honor killing, and the end of antiquated divorce and child custody laws.”

Perception and Perseverance

Taking a sip from her cup of tea, Bhutto pondered the world’s perception of her at the time. Was is an accurate one? She thought not. “I would certainly like to clarify the perceptions relating to the corruption charges. None of them are true … The attack on my reputation … I have found that the most difficult to accept.”

The Chair of the People’s Party said she found living in exile frustrating. “I want to live in my own home. I see that I could play more of a role irrespective of whether I am Prime Minister or not…I see that there is so much that I could mentor young people about. I feel frustrated in the denial of that opportunity to reach out to the youngsters in the Party and nation.”

Through it all, how was Bhutto able to persevere as long as she did? She mentioned two things that helped to keep her grounded: the number of Pakistani people who believed in her, as well as her inner faith in God. “When I was imprisoned they took away all of my material goods, but they could never take away my God.”

As she finished her cup of tea, Bhutto was quiet for a moment. When she spoke again, it was with a determined conviction. She said she was hopeful for a true transformation for her country.

“Pakistan’s stability is critical for the stability of the world. For the future we need to find out what is “behind the veil.” We need both men and women equally to make a society. We need to have faith in decency and the power of the people.”

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