My history hero: Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)

TV presenter and entrepreneur Saira Khan chooses Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) as her history hero...

Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, a PPP candidate (Pakistan People's Party), campaigning from the sun roof of a car. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement

Benazir Bhutto served two terms as prime minister of Pakistan, from 1988–90 and 1993–96. The eldest daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who also served as prime minister, she was the first woman to become head of state of a Muslim nation. Born in Karachi, she was educated at Harvard and Oxford, but was later jailed for five years by her father’s political opponents. As prime minister, she pushed forward Pakistan’s atomic weapons programme, but her two terms of office both ended with her being dismissed by the Pakistani president for alleged corruption. After a number of assassination attempts, she was killed in 2007, the victim of an apparent suicide bomb attack.

Q. When did you first hear about Benazir Bhutto?

A. I must have been six or seven. My father left Pakistan for Britain not long before Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took power in the 1970s. Several years after he was executed, Benazir took over as leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which her father had founded, and I remember my dad talking about her with such pride.

Q. What kind of person was she?

A. She was a formidable lady and she had an agenda: she wanted to right the wrongs that had been committed against her father. After his death, she decided she would never give up his ideals or his political cause. She was arrested a number of times, imprisoned and even put in solitary confinement. A lot of people would have been left broken by all that she went through, but
she wouldn’t be intimidated.

Q. What made Bhutto a hero?

A. Growing up, there weren’t that many role models for a girl like me and she was an inspirational figure. She was the same colour as me, she came from the same background as me – she was Pakistani, and my roots are Pakistani – and she was standing up as a woman in a man’s world. And a man’s world in Pakistan is very different to a man’s world here in the west; Pakistan is quite a misogynistic society. She defied tradition and is proof that women can do things if they’re just given a chance. She was an absolute pioneer in so many ways.

Q. What was her finest hour?

A. Just before she was assassinated in December 2007. Despite the fact that there had already been several attempts on her life and she knew the risks, she came out of exile and returned to Pakistan to campaign for the January 2008 elections in the hope of becoming prime minister again. Tragically, as she waved to the crowds from her car after a campaign rally, a shot fired out and explosives were detonated, killing her. For her to put herself in mortal danger, even though she was a mother by this point, demonstrates the amazing courage of the woman. It also reflects the duty she felt to the Pakistani people.

Q. Is there anything that you don’t admire about her?

A. As prime minister, I think she had a real chance to improve the lot of Pakistani women, and to put women’s rights on the political agenda. She missed the opportunity to do so which is a real shame.

Q. Isn’t she something of a polarising figure in her homeland?

A. Her second government was accused of corruption – but there’s always been corruption in Pakistani politics. She was no more or less corrupt than any other Pakistani politician, but I think there was more mud thrown at her because she was a woman.

Q. Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

A. Like her, I have an agenda, although my agenda is about improving Muslim women’s rights here in Britain and raising issues like forced marriage and child abuse that a lot of people in the Muslim community here would rather I didn’t raise. But when people criticise me for doing so, I think, “If she did it, I can”, and just carry on…

Q. If you could meet Bhutto, what would you ask her?

A. I’d like to ask her what it was kept that kept her going as a woman and a mother through such adversity.

Saira Khan is a regular presenter on ITV’s Loose Women. She was the runner-up on the first UK series of reality television show The Apprentice in 2005. Follow her on Twitter: @IamSairaKhan

Advertisement

Saira Khan was talking to York Membery.