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Benazir Bhutto: A Female Leader in a Muslim Nation Research Paper


Background Information

Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim nation, called Pakistan, is a symbol of great strength and poise. She was born on June 21, 1953, in Karachi. She was the first child of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nusrat Ispahani.

Her father, Zulfikar Ali belonged to one of the affluent families of Pakistan. He served as a lawyer, a cabinet minister, President and eventually as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Benazir spent her childhood in Karachi and at Al- Murtaza, their family estate at Larkana.

Bhutto family belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam. However, her parents were much liberal and progressive in their outlook, and they manifested this attitude in rearing their children.

Benazir did her schooling at the Convent of Jesus and Mary school at Karachi and later at the boarding in Murree and college at Radcliffe College, which was a part of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and later at Oxford.

Benazir’s inclination towards politics was evident from her college days. She took part in the anti-Vietnam War movement at Harvard and in the women’s movement that probably laid the foundation for her being the first female leader of her country.

Benazir was much influenced by her father’s political settings as she used to be a part of his official visits to foreign countries quite often during her college. In 1973, Benazir graduated from Radcliffe.

Great devotion to Islam and her country Pakistan were the two attributes that interweaved in her personality paving the way for her future leadership. Benazir entered Oxford in 1973 and studied philosophy, politics, economics, international law, and democracy in her four-year span.

Here, she joined the Oxford Union that was considered the training ground for future politics (Doherty& Doherty, n. d).

Zulfikar Ali formed his political party called Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967 after having differences with the then President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan regarding the peace treaty signed with India on the issue of Kashmir.

Benazir was only fourteen at that time, and the political scenario in Pakistan was under great turmoil because of Ayub Khan’s attempts to suppress the rising progress of the Pakistan People’s Party (Englar, 2006). He became the president and chief martial law administrator in December 1971.

When Benazir returned to Pakistan, her father was serving as the prime minister of the country, and a great turmoil had emerged in Pakistan’s politics.

The conditions worsened when General Zia -ul- Haq, the head of the military, seized power and declared himself chief martial law administrator in 1977.

He kept Zulfikar Ali under house arrest for some time and later arrested him along with many other members of Pakistan People’s Party in 1977 on the charges of being involved in the conspiracy to murder his political rival, misuse of funds and corruption.

Between July 1977 to April 1979, Benazir and her mother made all possible efforts for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s release. They tried to keep the party united and functioning in his absence. However, Zia-ul-Haq used all possible ways to discourage them.

They were kept under house arrest from time to time and ultimately in April got the shocking news of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution. Now Benazir had to fill the void, created by her father’s execution, in PPP as well as in the family.

She took over both the responsibilities and surmounted the tradition of her country that considered these jobs as male-oriented. She was truly devoted to the cause of bringing democracy and moderation in Pakistan’s politics.

She had to remain in prison and later in self-exile for several years because of the atrocities of General Zia. It was only after Zia-ul-Haq’s demise in a plane crash that Benazir could freely involve in Pakistan’s politics.

While being the opposition leader she had an arranged marriage with Asif Zardari, in December 1987. The road to the premiership was full of hurdles; however, the scenario seemed to change with her assuming the position as a first duly elected female leader of Pakistan.

She remained in power for short terms from 1998-1990 and 1993-1996. Benazir survived a bomb attack in October 2007 on returning home after a nine-year self-exile.

However, another bomb attack just two months later in December 2007 took her life with many other party supporters while campaigning (Doherty& Doherty, n. d).

Aim of the research

This paper aims to discuss various elements of Benazir Bhutto as a woman leader of a Muslim nation and the reasons behind her being the leader of Pakistan.

It also aims at assessing the situation of women under Benazir Bhutto’s regime and the comparison between the Islamic rules and social taboos related to women that are prevalent in Pakistan’s social structure.

The paper also focuses on the domestic challenges that she had to face and her inability to challenge many laws imposed under the name of Islam.

Research question

The purpose of this paper is to ‘Discuss the role of Benazir Bhutto, the first female leader in a Muslim country, in empowering women in Pakistan. ‘

Literature Review

Views of Islam and the society on women’s role

When Benazir Bhutto took office, she had to deal with many financial, social and political crises that had been waiting for reforms for about 11 years(the phase of military dictatorship by Zia -ul- Haq ).

Among many promises made by Benazir was to improve the condition of women in Pakistan and provide them a full partnership in Pakistan. However, it was not a simple task. Bhutto (2009) reveals the social scenario of Pakistan in these lines:

“Within the Muslim world, there has been and continues to be an internal rift, an often violent confrontation among sects, ideologies, and interpretations of the message of Islam.

This destructive tension has set brother against brother, a deadly fratricide that has tortured intra-Islamic relations for 1,300 years” (p.).

She had to deal with a social system that was unyielding to the new wave of development. She says that “many Muslim societies became intolerant with time while Western nations became more accepting of the tolerance and pluralism of Islam” (Bhutto, 2009, p.7).

Benazir was brought up in an environment that fostered gendered equality, and she was easily accepted as the next leader after her father’s assassination and supported by all PPP followers.

However, some conservative religious leaders wanted to oust her from power for being a woman (Stan,2007).

Benazir says, “Islam prohibited the killing of girls and gave women the right to divorce, child custody, alimony, and inheritance long before Western societies adopted these principles” (Bhutto, 2009, p.9).

However, during medieval times, the worsening social conditions in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia led to the regression of gender equality in Islamic societies, which is persistent until now. According to Benazir, there is no discrimination between men and women in Islam.

Hence, it is important to follow the guiding principles of Islam in the proper context (Bhutto, 2009). Status of women in Pakistan: The political atmosphere in Pakistan was suggestive of the fact that the gender issue is attached to the development prospects of Pakistan in general.

Pakistan various household and family responsibilities, not encouraged to acquire education and not permitted to look beyond the roles that have been imposed on them in the name of tradition.

Majority of the women live in rural areas, where tradition plays a key role in determining their status in society.

“It is only an elite few who have been able to break free from existing social controls and pursue a university degree, enter a nonfemale-domain profession, join a women’s political movement, or even select their husband”(Weiss,1990,p.38).

Challenges faced by Benazir Bhutto

Benazir had a challenging task to revive a country that was suppressed for as long as 11 years under the military dictatorship.

However, her aura and the fact that she was the daughter of the popular leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did have a deep impact on people of Pakistan but still, the lengthy period of dictatorship had led the emergence of different religious attitudes.

Furthermore, her opponents, who claimed to be the promoters of an Islam without concession, were busy making strategies to remove her from politics.

There were many other issues that were to be prioritize like “the sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shia Muslims in Punjab and NWFP, and the ethnic conflict in Karachi opposing the Mohajir community, Muslim migrants from India at the time of independence, to the pre-existing residents of the Sindh as a whole” (Efferink,2009,Para 18).

The Benazir government has presented society with the idealized image of women created by Zia-ul-Haq that promoted the use of the veil and made their role confined to home only.

However, the Quran guarantees a legal position of women, but the customs and attitudes in South Asia have contradicted these rights and practices (Weiss, 1990). Benazir had to face many upheavals in her political career.

She had to remain under house arrest and in prison several times during General Zia’s regime and later on self-exile when she was not in power for almost a decade. She was forced to be away from Pakistan so that not to participate actively in country politics.

With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, the hope to restore a democratic society in Pakistan diminished. The savior of democracy was no more to help her fellow citizens.

According to Moreno & Bachmann (2012), press reports signified her assassination as “a nuclear blast to the nuclear-armed country hoping to return to a “normal” government/situation in at least three respects: it blasted any possibility for the government to return to any democratic form; its repercussions occurred in waves, affecting individuals, businesses and economic stability on various levels; and it rushed in an apocalyptic era” (p.88).

Benazir as a feminist

Benazir was a symbol of feminism to American women. At the United Nations Fourth World Conference in 1999, she stood for the upliftment of women through education, employment, and population control.

She spoke on the matter of Islam and social taboos: “we must remember that Islam forbids injustice-injustice against people, against nations, against women”(Stan,2007, Para 3). She intended to enhance the status of women in Pakistan.

There was an effort to grant improved health services especially to deal with infant mortality and to wipe out polio from the country.

Benazir’s efforts for development were targeted on five E’s: “employment, education, energy, environment, and equality” (Benazir Bhutto – a feminist or a woman who identified what her life purpose was., 2011, Para 2).

Benazir is often criticized for being unable to work for women empowerment. She could not draw back the controversial Hudood Ordinances that considered rape and adultery as same.

No major legislation was passed during her first tenure of 20 months as a prime minister. The act of supporting the Taliban with military and finance in taking over Kabul also blemished her second term.

Khan (2007) states that.

“Besides this, she was accused of many other charges like ‘oligarchic looting of the Treasury ($ 1. 5 billion according to Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau), political expediency, and nepotism (her husband, known as “Mr. Ten Percent” was made Minister for Investments), the most irrefutable was that she did almost nothing for Pakistan during her two terms in power” (Para 10).

She visualized modern South Asia to be like the West. However, she did not believe in feminism in a sense her counterparts did in the West.

She believed in the institution of marriage and maintained a balance in carrying out the responsibilities of a mother, wife, and the leader of a nation simultaneously.

She was often criticized by the US feminists, who did not approve of the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan and protested against it only to derail the Taliban’s desire for stabilized U.S. associations.

The Benazir government in Pakistan was one among the only three nations for acknowledging the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan. Benazir Bhutto is also criticized for being deficient in taking action on behalf of women in Pakistan; however, she was a powerful figure of their possible empowerment.

As Stan (2007) puts it: “Symbolism was what Bhutto did best, and symbols matter-especially to the desperate” (Para 12). She was helpless due to the exhausted financial condition of Pakistan and made efforts to do whatever she could do without involving finance.

She lifted the ban on unions, freed prisoners, and allowed freedom of the press. The financial crises during the initial period of her office compelled her not to introduce any new programs that demanded to fund (Doherty& Doherty, n. d).

The government led by Benazir Bhutto was able to put off the implementation of other laws related to the worsening of women’s legal position. The most important among those were the Ninth Amendment and the Shariat Bill.

The new government had to deal with the problem of high female illiteracy. Under the military rule of General Zia, there was no attention paid to the education of women in the country. The Seventh Five Year Plan that was constituted by the former regime was modified by the Benazir government.

It assured equal opportunities of education, health, employment and other spheres of life for women and promised to draw the attention of the policymakers and public towards the discrimination of women.

However, there was no light thrown on how these plans would be implemented. The most significant step that the new government took was to promote the Women’s Division, formed during the Zia regime, to the Ministry of Women’s Development.

Benazir Bhutto symbolized a new generation in Pakistan. “She learned much from her martyred father, retaining his political dreams that were fashioned to fire up and consolidate the underprivileged majority in the country” (Weiss,1990,p.45).


Benazir Bhutto is an epitome of great leadership. Her father had a great impact on her right from an early age. Like her father, she was determined to bring democracy to Pakistan and to bring about social reforms in her country.

In this effort, she had to go through many upheavals in her political and personal life. She gained power but could do little for the country and mainly for women empowerment. However, it is to be noted that she had to face many challenges at the time of assuming office.

The country was in a very pitiable state because of the lengthy military dictatorship. The people were in a state of great perplexity due to different religious attitudes rooted by the former regime.

Moreover, Benazir could get only a short period in both terms. It was difficult to change the long built scenario in a few years.

However, the fact remains that she was a symbol of great strength and bravery for women all around the world. She did not give up to the challenges coming on her way and devoted her life for the cause of democratization of politics in her country.


Bachmann, I. & Moreno, T. C. R. (2012). Pakistani and US Press content on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination frame her dynasty, destiny, death and their secrets. Observations Journal. 6 (1), 281-310

‘Benazir Bhutto – a feminist or a woman who identified what her life purpose was?’ (2011). Instant Online Presence. Web.

Bhutto, B. (2009). . Web.

Doherty, K. M. & Doherty, C. A. (n. d). . Web.

Englar, M. (2006). . Web.

Efferink, L. (2009). Pakistan: Women’s rights, Civic society and Benazir Bhutto. EG. Web.

Khan, J. (2007). . The Telegraph. Web.

Stan, A. (2007). . The American Prospect. Web.

Weiss, A. M. (1990). . Asian Survey. 30 (5).

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"Benazir Bhutto: A Female Leader in a Muslim Nation." IvyPanda, 6 Nov. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/benazir-bhutto-a-female-leader-in-a-muslim-nation/.

1. IvyPanda. "Benazir Bhutto: A Female Leader in a Muslim Nation." November 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/benazir-bhutto-a-female-leader-in-a-muslim-nation/.


IvyPanda. "Benazir Bhutto: A Female Leader in a Muslim Nation." November 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/benazir-bhutto-a-female-leader-in-a-muslim-nation/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Benazir Bhutto: A Female Leader in a Muslim Nation." November 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/benazir-bhutto-a-female-leader-in-a-muslim-nation/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Benazir Bhutto: A Female Leader in a Muslim Nation'. 6 November.

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