All achievers

Benazir Bhutto

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan

I think leadership is very much predicated on the capacity to absorb defeat and overcome it.

Benazir Bhutto was born in Karachi, Pakistan to a prominent political family. At age 16 she left her homeland to study at Harvard’s Radcliffe College. After completing her undergraduate degree at Radcliffe she studied at England’s Oxford University, where she was awarded a second degree in 1977.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928 -1979), the ninth Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1973-1977 and the fourth President of Pakistan from 1971-1973, and father of Benazir Bhutto. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928 -1979), the ninth Prime Minister of Pakistan, from 1973-1977, and the fourth President of Pakistan, from 1971-1973, and father of Benazir Bhutto.

Later that year she returned to Pakistan, where her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been elected Prime Minister, but days after her arrival, the military seized power and her father was imprisoned. In 1979 he was hanged by the military government of General Zia Ul Haq.

Bhutto herself was also arrested many times over the following years, and was detained for three years before being permitted to leave the country in 1984. She settled in London, and along with her two brothers, she founded an underground organization to resist the military dictatorship. When her brother Shahnawaz died in 1985, she traveled to Pakistan for his burial, and was again arrested for participating in anti-government rallies.

She flew to London after her release, and martial law was lifted in Pakistan at the end of the year. Anti-Zia demonstrations resumed and Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in April 1986. The public response to her return was tumultuous, and she publicly called for the resignation of Zia Ul Haq, whose government had executed her father.

Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi June 28, 1972 in Shimla, the summer capital of India, while his daughter Benazir Bhutto and Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh look on. Bhutto visited India to meet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and negotiated a formal peace agreement and the release of 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. The two leaders signed the Shimla Agreement, which committed both nations to establish a Line of Control in Kashmir and obligated them to resolve disputes peacefully through bilateral talks. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)
June 28, 1972: Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto shakes hands with India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in Shimla, the summer capital of India, while his daughter Benazir Bhutto and Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh look on. Bhutto visited India to meet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and negotiated a formal peace agreement and the release of 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. The leaders signed the Shimla Agreement, which committed both nations to establish a Line of Control in Kashmir and obligated them to resolve disputes through bilateral talks.

She was elected co-chairwoman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), along with her mother, and when free elections were finally held in 1988, she herself became Prime Minister. At 35, she was one of the youngest chief executives in the world, and the first woman to serve as prime minister in an Islamic country.

Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, on their wedding day, at Clifton Palace, Karachi, Pakistan, December 1987. (© Francoise de Mulder/CORBIS)
1987: Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, on their wedding day, at Clifton Palace, Karachi, Pakistan.

Only two years into her first term, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Bhutto from office. She initiated an anti-corruption campaign, and in 1993 was re-elected as Prime Minister. While in office, she brought electricity to the countryside and built schools all over the country. She made hunger, housing and healthcare her top priorities, and looked forward to continuing to modernize Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s. (© Karan Kapoor/CORBIS)
Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s. Her career has been celebrated as a triumph for women in the Muslim world and for the global fight against Islamic extremism. Bhutto was the first woman to head a Muslim majority nation. (Corbis)

At the same time, Bhutto faced constant opposition from the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Her brother Mir Murtaza, who had been estranged from Benazir since their father’s death, returned from abroad and leveled charges of corruption at Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari. Mir Murtaza died when his bodyguard became involved in a gunfight with police in Karachi. The Pakistani public was shocked by this turn of events, and PPP supporters were divided over the charges against Zardari.

In 1996, President Leghari of Pakistan dismissed Benazir Bhutto from office, alleging mismanagement, and dissolved the National Assembly. A Bhutto re-election bid failed in 1997, and the next elected government, headed by the more conservative Nawaz Sharif, was overthrown by the military. Bhutto’s husband was imprisoned, and once again, she was forced to leave her homeland. For nine years, she and her children lived in exile in London, where she continued to advocate the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Asif Ali Zardari was released from prison in 2004 and rejoined his family in London. In the autumn of 2007, in the face of death threats from radical Islamists, and the hostility of the government, Benazir Bhutto and her husband returned to their native country.

Council member Benazir Bhutto presents the American Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate Award to distiguished historian Dr. David Herbert Donald.
Benazir Bhutto, the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan, is presented with the Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. David Herbert Donald at the 2000 Achievement Summit in London.

Although she was greeted by enthusiastic crowds, within hours of her arrival, her motorcade was attacked by a suicide bomber. She survived this first assassination attempt, although more than 100 bystanders died in the attack. With national elections scheduled for January 2008, her Pakistan People’s Party was poised for a victory that would make Bhutto Prime Minister once again. Only a few weeks before the election, the extremists struck again. After a campaign rally in Rawalpindi, a gunman fired at her car before detonating a bomb, killing himself and more than 20 bystanders. Bhutto was rushed to the hospital but soon succumbed to injuries suffered in the attack. In the wake of her death, rioting erupted throughout the country. The loss of the country’s most popular democratic leader plunged Pakistan into turmoil, intensifying the dangerous instability of a nuclear-armed nation in a highly volatile region.

A survivor is overcome with emotion at the site of a bomb blast attack on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto died from a bullet wound to the neck after speaking at a rally in the northern city where an estimated 15 people were left dead by the explosion. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
A survivor is overcome with emotion at the site of a bomb blast attack on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto died from a bullet wound to the neck after speaking at a rally in the northern city, where an estimated 15 people were left dead by the explosion. (John Moore/Getty)

In her political testament, Benazir Bhutto identified her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, as her choice to succeed her as Chairman of the PPP. At the time of her death, Bialawal was only 19, still an undergraduate at Oxford. The party leadership agreed that his father, Asif Ali Zardari, would serve as acting chairman of the party until Bilawal completed his studies in England. Meanwhile, the PPP entered into a broad coalition, including the party of Bhutto’s former rival Nawaz Al-Sharif, and scored an overwhelming victory in the 2008 election. A member of the PPP, Yousaf Raza Gillani, was chosen to serve as Prime Minister. Later that year, President Musharraf resigned, and Asif Ali Zardari was elected President of Pakistan. Although Benazir Bhutto did not live to see these developments, the party she led and the causes she championed still play a major role in the political life of contemporary Pakistan.

January 3, 2008: Supporters of the Pakistan People's Party march with a banner of their slain leader, Benazir Bhutto, during a rally in Lahore, days after her death. (AP Images/K M Chaudary)
January 3, 2008: Supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party march with a banner of their slain leader, Benazir Bhutto, during a rally in Lahore, days after her death. Bhutto is seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment and today, parties from across Pakistan’s political spectrum, allow women to be a part of their organizations and fully participate in elections. Her efforts to promote democracy remain a lasting legacy. (AP Images/K. M. Chaudary)

Benazir Bhutto left a deeply polarizing legacy. Her career has been celebrated as a triumph for women in the Muslim world and for the global fight against Islamic extremism. At the same time, she has been accused of corruption and bad governance. Her efforts and struggle to champion democracy remain a lasting legacy that is deeply respected among her rivals. Several universities and public buildings in Pakistan bear Benazir Bhutto’s name, while her career influenced a number of activists, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2000

“When I first got elected, they said: A woman has usurped a man’s place! She should be killed! She should be assassinated! She has committed heresy!”

At age 35, Benazir Bhutto was one of the youngest chiefs of state in the world. More than that, she was the first woman ever to serve as prime minister of an Islamic country, but the road that brought her to power had already led through exile, imprisonment and devastating personal tragedy.

Only days after young Benazir Bhutto returned to her native Pakistan from university studies abroad, the country’s elected government was overthrown. Her father, Prime Minister Ali Bhutto, was imprisoned and eventually executed. Young Benazir too was repeatedly arrested, then imprisoned, and finally forced into exile, but she never abandoned the hope of restoring democracy to her homeland.

She returned to lead a pro-democracy movement, and when free elections were finally held in Pakistan in 1988, Benazir Bhutto herself became Prime Minister. She made hunger and health care her top priorities, brought electricity to the countryside, and built schools all over the country. Although she was herself a devout Muslim, her reforms frequently brought her into conflict with the same religious fundamentalists who had opposed the election of a woman as prime minister. She was elected a second time in 1993, but the president of the country dismissed her from office and dissolved the National Assembly. A military coup drove her from the country yet again, but after more than eight years in exile, Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 2007. Weeks before a national election in which Benazir Bhutto and her party were expected to prevail, she was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Her death was a devastating loss to her country, but the cause of democracy she championed is carried on by her family and followers.

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You were only 35 when you became the first woman to serve as prime minister of a Muslim country.

Benazir Bhutto: It was a victory for women everywhere. I would really realize that when I won, and I got so many letters from other Muslim women, and more than that, from women within my own country who felt that it was now decent to work. I don’t know why. It’s a strange thing to say today, but in those days people thought that it was indecent for a woman to work and “good women” (in inverted commas) didn’t work.  It was a very strange world of divisions, and it liberated women.  They said, “The prime minister is a woman, why can’t we work?”  I remember being told a story about a lady who wanted to be a pilot, and went for an interview, and the chairman, who happened to be from the armed forces, laughed and said, “Come back to me when we have a woman prime minister.”   Well she did, and she got the job, and now there are more woman pilots too.

You’ve had to deal with family tragedy, you’ve been in and out of prison, in and out of detention. How have you dealt with these enormous obstacles and challenges in your life?

Keys to success — Perseverance

Benazir Bhutto: In life there are challenges, but I think leadership is very much predicated on the capacity to absorb defeat and overcome it.  Now, after having been in politics for more than two decades, I have come to the strong conclusion that the difference between somebody who succeeds and somebody who fails is the ability to absorb a setback. Because on the road to success there will be setbacks, and there are those who give up, and those who say that, “No, we are going to go on.” So it’s that capacity to absorb a failure.

Also, when I was in prison I became very devout. I’m not a fundamentalist but I am very devout, and I believe that God places a burden on one’s shoulders that he feels that you can bear. So when the burden grows heavy I turn to God and say, “God, don’t let it be so heavy that I cannot put up with it.” So I would say that in solitary confinement when I had nobody to talk to. I was brought up ritualistically religious as many people are. Their parents take them to church and teach them how to say their prayers like my mother taught me, but it’s all ritualistic.

Keys to success — Courage

It was when I was in prison and everyone was cut off from me, my family, my friends, food, even couldn’t get a glass of water without having to beg somebody for it who came twice a day with my food, and no ice.  I mean, the ordinary things, in the heat of the summer where you can open the fridge and take — nothing. I had nothing. They cut everything — took everything away. Material, physical, everything. And suddenly I realized they can take everyone away. I couldn’t read newspapers.  They wouldn’t give me newspapers or Time magazine. So suddenly I realized that they can’t take God away from me. So to pass the time I started passing it in prayer.  So from that moment I realized that God is always with one, so what gave me the faith and sustenance was my belief that God places a burden on people to bear and He places only that burden which they can bear.

The second thing was the love of ordinary people. The love was so much that it was enriching. It gave me strength, nurturance. Maybe I’m a needy person, maybe I need love. Sometimes I think, “Why would someone go on doing it?” When I get so much love at the mass level, I feel that I must go on. So I think that those are the two factors that really kept me going because in the worst of my moments I always had vast reservoirs of love.

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto speaks to about 80,000 supporters during a campaign rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in 1986. (© Reuters/CORBIS)
1986: Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto speaks to about 80,000 supporters during a campaign rally in Rawalpindi.

I remember when I was overthrown in ’97 and things were very bad in the press.  They were calling us all sorts of names.  And the first time — you know, you’re spoiled as prime minister, you have your own planes to go and everything like that, you don’t catch passenger planes or go through immigration — you know, security checks.  The first time I caught a plane and was reintroduced to the real world, one of the air hostesses just saw me and she hugged me and she said that, “You know it was during your time that my brother got a job and changed our family’s life.” Then I remember that when I reached Karachi — I was going home — the whole union had gathered, and the whole union received me and they threw rose petals all over me.  So suddenly I thought, “I’m not alone.”  Even if the press, the government, everything was after me.

February 8, 1999: Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto waves to her supporters in Karachi during a rally against the Pakistan government. (AFP Photo/Amir Qureshi Copyright AFP/Corbis)
February 8, 1999: Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto waves to her supporters in Karachi during a rally. (Corbis)

You ran to improve the position of women, social services, education, health. Your very political ideals were controversial, weren’t they?

Benazir Bhutto: That was my agenda. First I did it for democracy, because that was my father’s agenda and it was also mine as a youth.  But my own agenda was very much poverty alleviation and population planning, for instance. We brought down the population growth rate by one-third, and because of the cascading effect it’s going to continue going downwards. And there was a lot of hue and cry against the population program, but we did it by recruiting 50,000 women from different villages, and training them in three-month installments.  First they would train for three months. They’d go out and work and then every month they’d come back for a refresher to learn something more. So when we had 50,000 women with a vested stake in it, we had ambassadors everywhere to counter people in villages who were opposed to population control. I remember the iodized salt; the clerics said, “You shouldn’t eat iodized salt because it has really got population control in it, and you won’t be able to have any children.”  So we did take on an agenda that frightened the people who believed in the status quo, and who actually believed in a tribal patriarchal society, because to a great extent there is still an undercurrent of a patriarchal society in Pakistan.