Exiled in the Persian Gulf emirate Dubai, in a house by a
mosque, Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto sat down
at her personal computer.
“The days that I am too busy to worry about what my opponents
are doing to me are the good days,” Bhutto typed. She was
responding to interview questions from Colorado, where she’ll
arrive today for a speech at the Buell Theatre as part of the
Unique Lives and Experiences lecture series.
Bhutto has battled political opponents, and they’ve battled her – accusing each other of corruption – for most of her adult life.
Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she originally wanted to be a
journalist. But when she returned to Pakistan in 1978, her beloved
father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had just been replaced
in a coup by General Zia ul-Haq. In 1979, she watched as Zia’s
agents hanged her father. Then she endured frequent detentions. By
1986, she’d taken on the role of an opposition political leader.
And after a mysterious midair plane explosion killed Zia in August
1988, Bhutto became prime minister.
At age 35, she was one of the youngest heads of state in
modern times – and the first woman to lead an Islamic nation. She
tried to improve health and education for the 150 million people
of Pakistan, an emerging power west of India where the average
income is $500 a year.
Yet politics is a deadly game in Pakistan, and Bhutto soon
was absorbed in the climate of sectarian violence and corruption
that have plagued her country since Britain created it in 1947 as
a home for India’s Muslims.
Dictators claiming to combat corruption toppled Bhutto twice,
in 1990 and 1996.
Her two brothers were murdered, one allegedly poisoned, the
other shot by police. Her husband, Asif Zardari, has been jailed
for four years on corruption charges that are under appeal.
A year ago, Bhutto was convicted of embezzling hundreds of
millions of dollars and barred from holding public office. She
denies any wrongdoing, blaming “a kangaroo court” led by the son
of the man who ordered her father’s execution.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s other main political figure, former
prime minister Nawaz Sharif, faces worse trouble: a life jail
sentence inside Pakistan for hijacking and terrorism. Sharif was
overthrown last October in a military coup that installed Gen.
This leaves Bhutto at 46 – exiled yet still committed to the
Pakistan People’s Party her father founded – positioning herself
for a return to power if ruling generals allow an election.
On frequent visits to England and the United States, she
projects an image of serene self-confidence, hiding any personal
anguish she may feel.
“When I think of the tragedies in my life, I break down in
tears,” Bhutto wrote. She especially misses her murdered brother,
Murtaza. “I can still feel the warmth of his cheek on mine as we
kissed goodbye and the smile on his face as he waved.”
Part of her mission in Denver is building understanding of
the Islamic world in general, as well as Pakistan and South Asia.
This is a region State Department officials see increasingly as a
hotbed of anti-U.S. sentiment, a fundamentalist refuge for
terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, where opium production gives
rise to global drug dealing.
On the fundamentalist forces emanating from Pakistan’s
Taliban-ruled neighbor Afghanistan, Bhutto said women in
Afghanistan are concerned about education and career
opportunities. But women support the Taliban, Bhutto acknowledged.
They do so, she said, “out of fear.”
Bhutto praised President Clinton’s recent visit to Pakistan
for highlighting choices she believes Pakistan must make between
becoming a closed fundamentalist society, or a democracy committed
to building peace in the region.
And in that region, she said, persistent U.S. bombing of Iraq
is “a sad reflection on our international systems of conflict
resolution.” Children are suffering; the bombing “hurts innocent
people,” Bhutto said.
“Iraq made a critical mistake in invading Kuwait. Some way
should now be found to guarantee peace.”
Worldwide, she believes that U.S. women, relatively affluent
and well-educated, are in a position to make a difference. They
collectively hold power, in her view, to confront Pakistan’s
current deadly mix: religious fervor, hungry masses, widespread
disillusionment and nuclear weapons.
“Do something about it,” Bhutto said. “We are all part of one
world, one humanity, one global family. Do something. Donate a
dollar to a (nongovernmental organization), write a letter to a
congressman, speak at a seminar against proliferation, raise your
voice for tolerance. To stay quiet is to acquiesce, and to
acquiesce is to surrender to the forces of darkness.”
There are plenty of critics – well-informed
Pakistani-Americans among them – who view Bhutto as a has-been.
She comes from a noble family and, in the eyes of some, never
broke rank. Her conviction by a Pakistani court and inability to
improve life for Pakistan’s impoverished masses lead some to
question her image as a liberal democratic heroine.
But Bhutto also is popular, especially among women in the
United States, according to surveys conducted as part of the
Unique Lives and Experiences program bringing her to Denver.
Program director Howard Szigeti, based in Toronto, said in a
survey of 2,700 women in Denver, only former British Prime
Minister Margaret Thatcher, author Toni Morrison, National Public
Radio analyst Cokie Roberts, and NBC morning show host Katie
Couric rated higher than Bhutto. Bhutto proved more interesting to
American women, according to the survey, than Coretta Scott King,
Barbara Bush, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sarandon and Martha Stewart,
And despite her traditional “shalwar-kameez” attire and
headscarf, she shares much in common with the western audiences
She enjoys reading books.
She loves the time she spends with her three children – they
go on walks, eat out, drive to see the lights in the city, watch
movies and plays.
She laments that over the past two years – since her last
visit to Denver – she hasn’t been able to follow a health club
routine or develop any new interests.
Most of all she’s just busy. Beyond Denver this week, Bhutto
is scheduled to speak in Boston and Edmonton, Alberta, then visit
friends in Washington, D.C.
“Slow days are few and far between,” she said. “Life is still
a big rush.”