Born into a wealthy and progressive family, Benazir Bhutto followed in her father’s political footsteps to advocate for human rights and equality in a divided Pakistan.

When Benazir Bhutto was a girl, her father, Zulfikar, took her out for a walk on the family property. The Bhutto family lived in a palatial house in the city of Larkana in Pakistan’s Sindh province. With its lush gardens and forests, Larkana was once called the “Eden of Sindh,” and the Bhutto family owned a great deal of the land that was managed by tenant-farmers in a system known as feudalism—a system that Zulfikar hoped to one day change.

“Look at the way these people sweat in the heat and the sun and the fields,” Zulfikar told his daughter. “It is because of their sweat that you will have the opportunity to be educated And you have a debt to these people; you’ve got to come back and pay that debt.”

This sentiment wasn’t typical of a wealthy family in an Islamic society, but the Bhuttos weren’t a typical family and Bhutto was not a typical daughter. By the time Bhutto was 34, she had become Pakistan’s youngest prime minister—and the first female prime minister of a Muslim-majority country. She would also live a life that challenged the prevailing notion that women were less equal than men, and champion a political agenda that aimed to lift Pakistani families out of poverty, improve the health of the country’s children, and provide women with opportunities for both work and justice.

Bhutto was born in Karachi in 1953, just six years after Pakistan gained its independence from India. She was Zulfikar and Nusrat Bhutto’s first child, but for the first three days of her life, no one came to see her in the hospital. The family were mourned the fact that Nusrat had given birth to a daughter and not a son. Yet the Bhuttos named their daughter Benazir, which means “without comparison” or “one of a kind.”

In traditional Pakistani society, girls were expected to marry and raise a family, though Nusrat Bhutto defied expectations. She was the first woman in Karachi to drive a car, and was a captain in the women’s division of Pakistan’s National Guard. Her marriage to Zulfikar didn’t stop her from working, and she became a partner to her husband in building a new Pakistan.

Zulfikar raised his family with a Western perspective. He had gone to school in California and attended Oxford. A former lawyer, he had entered politics and represented Pakistan at the United Nations. For all the social consciousness and engagement he and his wife instilled in their four children, the Bhuttos earned the nickname “The Kennedys of Pakistan.”

Zulfikar considered education as a tool to building democracy, and sent Bhutto to study at Harvard when she was 16. In 1969, the United States was teeming with social movements, including Civil Rights activism, anti-war demonstrations, and women’s equality movements. This was the first time that Bhutto saw an environment where women were treated as equal participants in society, and it became a major moment in her political educational consciousness and engagement.

Meanwhile, Pakistan was struggling, and went to war with India in 1965 and 1971. Those who weren’t wealthy became poorer with each war; in response, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto formed the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which ran with the simple slogan “Bread, Clothing, and Shelter.” In 1971, Zulfikar became president of Pakistan.

One of President Bhutto’s first orders of business was to build a peaceful relationship with India and, in 1972, he brought his daughter to the peace negotiations. Watching her father in action, Bhutto received a master class in diplomacy. She also met India’s first (and only) female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi—the daughter of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. At the end of the trip, Zulfikar bragged, “My daughter will make me more proud than Indira made her father.” 

Zulfikar became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1973 and, that same year, Bhutto enrolled at Oxford with the goal of becoming a diplomat, representing Pakistan abroad rather than leading the country as a politician. At the same time, however, Bhutto was following news from home: Her father had more difficulty as prime minister than he did as president, and was losing the support of the United States and Pakistani religious leaders. In the hopes of appeasing the conservative right, Zulfikar hired General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq as his chief of staff—a decision that would cost him his life. 

In 1977, General Zia overthrew Bhutto’s government and imposed martial law. Bhutto’s three siblings—her brothers Murtaza and Shahnawaz, and her sister Sanam—were all out of the country. Having graduated from Oxford, Bhutto and her mother remained in Pakistan and visited Zulfikar as often as they could. During these visits, Bhutto and her father had long conversations about the future of the PPP. She had been planning to take the entrance exam for the foreign service, but this was the moment where she realized she had to learn the ropes of politics. Despite a major campaign by Bhutto and her siblings, Zulfikar was sentenced to death in 1979. Zulfikar’s last words to Bhutto were: “This is goodbye until the final meeting.” 

As self-appointed leader, Zia undid Zulfikar’s work towards peace and democracy. Rather than offer “bread, clothing, and shelter,” Zia doled out punishments including amputations, whipping, and stonings, and suspended many of the rights included in Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution under Bhuttoincluding equal rights between men and women. If a woman was raped, she needed to provide four male witnesses to the act in order to file a case in court. If she was unable to do this, she was arrested for adultery. Zia’s regime imprisoned Bhutto and her mother in some of the worst prison conditions and, although he allowed Bhutto‘s mother to leave prison and go abroad for cancer treatment, Bhutto was kept in solitary confinement. Following unrelenting international pressure, Bhutto was released from prison in 1984 and she fled to London.

Prison affected Bhutto in many ways, but it didn’t diminish her spirit. She told a group of reporters in the United Kingdom:

“We have not left Pakistan We have not gone out as political refugees, or for political asylum. We are Pakistanis, and we will go back to Pakistan. That’s our homeland. That’s where we live, and that’s where we’ll die.” 

General Zia’s regime didn’t leave Bhutto alone, either. In 1985, Shahnawaz, the youngest of the Bhutto siblings, died in France under mysterious circumstances. The following year, Bhutto returned to Pakistan as the leader of the PPP with tremendous support from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Just try and stop me, she seemed to be telling Zia. 

Bhutto quickly realized that she would need to get married in order to be taken seriously as a politician in Pakistan. She agreed to an arranged marriage with Asif Ali Zardari, the son of a wealthy family who owned movie theaters. Bhutto and Zardari wed in Karachi in December, 1987. The wedding, which included a party attended by 200,000 people, turned into a political rally for Benazir. 

While she was soft-spoken in person, Bhutto was like her father at the podium: fiery and passionate. She was so stirring, she could have asked the supporters at her wedding to lead a coup against Zia right then and there. But Bhutto believed in the ballot box over the bullet, and often said that “democracy is the greatest revenge.” 

General Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988 and, in early 1989, Bhutto gave birth to her first child. A few months later, she won the elections as Pakistan’s first female prime minister. On her first day in office, Bhutto freed all political prisoners, eliminated media censorship, and allowed students to set up their own groups. Over time, she also worked on simple solutions that could lead to major impact—an approach that the PPP was known for. In her time as prime minister, Pakistan was declared polio-free. Districts without clean drinking water or electricity now had both; 48,000 primary and secondary schools were opened; Bhutto set up women’s police stations that could serve as a safer space for women who may have been too scared to seek justice under Zia’s male-dominated rule.

But it was still hard for Bhutto to do all that she had promised. She would say to friends that she had the position, but not the power, of prime minister. Pakistan’s president was still a loyalist to General Zia, and the military was unwilling to accept orders from a woman. Rumors of corruption, especially around Bhutto’s husband Asif, began to flow. Supporters and critics alike felt that the campaign had focused too much on overthrowing a dictator and establishing democracy in Pakistan, and too little on what would happen next. After just 18 months as prime minister, Bhutto was removed from office and Asif was arrested. 

“My first term, we were very inexperienced,” Bhutto would later admit. “Certainly we made mistakes, but we were sincere in our intent, sincere in our purpose.” As the leader of the PPP, she became the head of the opposition party (that is, the party that is “opposed” to the party in power), even organizing a 10-mile protest march in 1992. 

When the new prime minister resigned in 1993, Bhutto once again ran for office and won. She still faced challenges when leading the country, including from her brother, Murtaza, whose political goals didn’t align with Bhutto’s. Opponents once again lobbied corruption charges against here. She even survived an attempted coup of her government. Amid all of this, she worked to improve the economy and women’s rights. 

In 1996, Murtaza Bhutto was killed in a standoff with the police. Some people (including members of her family), blamed Bhutto for his death, though she accused the president and asked for an investigation. Unfortunately, this created a rift that led to another familiar refrain: Bhutto was removed from office and Asif was arrested. Bhutto left for Dubai with her three children and her mother; it would be another seven years until the family was reunited.

Meanwhile, corruption in Pakistan continued and it became clear to foreign leaders that, if the country was going to survive, it needed greater leadership and a democratic alternative. Pakistan needed Benazir Bhutto. 

On October 18, 2007, after almost 10 years in exile, Bhutto returned to Pakistan. She cried tears of joy when she got off the plane, but her husband and children were nervous for her safety. But Bhutto was adamant: It was better to take the risk and do what’s right, than to stay at home where it’s safe. As Asif explained, “She was never interested in the moment. She was interested in the light at the end of the tunnel, and history itself.” 

But Asif saw to it that the bus that would take Bhutto through Pakistan on a “welcome home” tour included a special area with bulletproof glass. Bhutto, however, wanted to be with the people to whom she owed a debt. Her welcome home tour turned into a deadly attack when two bombs went off. Over 130 people attending the rally were killed, though Bhutto managed to survive. 

But on December 27, after giving a speech in the city of Rawalpindi, Bhutto stood up through the sunroof of a vehicle to greet her people. Three gunshots were heard, then an explosion: A man had gotten close enough to Bhutto’s car to fire at her and possibly hit her. Moments later, someone else set off a suicide bomb (the details on who was behind the attack are still debated) and the prime minister was killed. Bhutto was buried at her family home in Larkana. 

Although she was born into what would become a political dynasty, Bhutto could have turned her back on politics and lived a comfortable life in Dubai or in the West. Instead, Bhutto was a controversial leader who experienced her share of failure, but was also celebrated for her commitment to truth and democracy, and for her ability to break into a male-dominated career in a male-dominated culture. 

Her influence, much like her father’s, has also set the stage for the next generation of Pakistani leaders. Her son, Bilawal, now leads the PPP and another young Pakistani woman has declared her goal to become prime minister: Malala Yousafzai. 

Bhutto’s example inspired to Yousafzai to pursue her education, and advocate for educational opportunities for all girls. 

“She was a great leader and she is a symbol for us,” the Nobel Prize winner told the CBC earlier this year. “She is an example for us that when she became the prime minister it was a message to us that girls can do anything. You can go to politics. You can be the next prime minister. And that’s what I thought. And if Benazir Bhutto can be the prime minister why can’t I?” 

Yousafzai now follows in her hero’s footsteps and attends Oxford University. She has said that she doesn’t like posters, but does have one photograph hanging in her dorm room: Benazir Bhutto.


Olivia Giovetti has written for the Washington Post, NPR, Paper, VAN, The Millions, and Electric Literature. She’s served as the Classical & Opera editor for Time Out New York and as a writer and host for WQXR. Her work has also been performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. Find her online at oliviagiovetti.com.