By Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
The news about Jacinda Ardern struck a nerve with my sisters and I. It is indeed uplifting to see the world rejoice at her good fortune. While there are the detractors and naysayers, the barrage of good wishes, the #knitforJacinda campaign and countless other little gestures, has been overwhelmingly positive.
But it was only natural for me to look back and compare this situation with the one my mother faced 28 years ago when she became the first world leader to give birth while in office. At the time, as her children, we didn’t appreciate how extraordinary her life was. Looking back it is clear that despite her accomplishments, every day she had to prove that as a woman she had every right to be who she was, larger than life and leading from the front, every step of the way.
As her children we didn’t comprehend the scale of her challenges because we never saw her complain, not even in private, about how she was held to a different standard just because she was a woman. My mother began her political journey as a symbol of hope and resistance to the repressive, regressive, Islamist regime of General Ziaul Haq. He imposed dictatorship, hanged my grandfather – the first democratically elected prime minister – on trumped-up charges, and brutalised Pakistani society under the most authoritarian regime our country has ever seen.
He radicalised Pakistan to such an extent that we are still haunted by his actions today. So aggressive and pervasive was the misogyny that as a result of his extremist legislative rollbacks Pakistan became the first country on earth to revoke rights already granted to women. Zia’s regime decided that a woman’s worth would be half that of the man in the eyes of the law. It was in this environment that my mother cut her political teeth, and led the political campaign against the regime.
Enduring imprisonment, solitary confinement, exile, assassinations of family members and associates was what she had to live through as a young woman. A poet of the time encapsulated the patriarchal regime’s fear of my mother quite succinctly: “Dartay hain bandooqon walay, aik nihatti larki sai.” (How the people with guns fear an un-armed girl.) In 1988 my mother led a nationwide election campaign, wrote a bestselling book, had her first child and became the youngest and first female prime minister of the Muslim world. All in one year! For her detractors this wasn’t good enough. She was unacceptable because she was a woman.
Disregarding her overwhelming popularity and mandate, a public campaign was launched to say Islam did not allow for women to rule. So-called scholars issued fatwas decreeing that if anyone voted for her their marriage would be null and void. This kind of overt misogyny continued while she was prime minister.
Perhaps most controversially when she was pregnant with my sister, Bakhtawar, her prime ministership was challenged for that fact. There were calls for her dismissal, the setting up of a caretaker government because a pregnant woman had no right to be prime minister. It’s not like the constitution allowed for maternity leave. My mother, being who she was, took this all in her stride with a smile on her face, had her baby in secret and was back at work the next day. For misogynists, no matter what women do, it was and is never good enough.
When my mother was not married, they would say, “Oh, good women are married, so why isn’t she married?” When she did get married, they would say, “Oh, why did she choose to marry him?” Then they would say, “Why is she not having children?” Then when she did have children, they said, “Oh, why is she always pregnant?”
Growing up we just did not appreciate these challenges. Her final campaign was against the military dictatorship of General Musharraf and the scourge of violent extremism in Pakistan.
She led the long fight against Musharraf, fought consistently for democracy, and advocated for the release of political prisoners, including my father who at this point had spent a collective 11-and-a-half years in prison without a conviction. All the while raising her children as a single mother, lecturing and giving speeches to make a living, making time to have a meal with us every day, taking us to the mosque every Friday, helping us with our homework, and much to our annoyance, never missing PTA meetings!
Driven always by a sense of destiny and a duty to her people, she returned to Pakistan to lead the fight against extremism and dictatorship. In doing so she spoke out against religious fascists with a brand of courage not shown by any of her contemporary male politicians. Ultimately the forces of dictatorship and extremism robbed me of my mother but she lives on as a symbol of hope, a role model for women across the world. She proved beyond a doubt, with her life and relentless courage, that women can certainly do everything. While the political pygmies who opposed her will be forgotten, she lives on in history as a global icon. I know every child thinks of their mother as superwoman, I certainly did.
(The author Bilawal Bhutto Zardari chairs the Pakistan People’s party. He penned this article for Guardian newspaper.)
Bilawal striving for mother’s mantle
An AFP analysis
A decade after former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, her son Bilawal is striving to reclaim his mother’s mantle, the latest act in a Shakespearean saga of tragedy and power. But reviving the wilted fortunes of his family’s political dynasty ahead of the next General Election will be a tough ask for the Oxford-educated scion, who at 29-years-old has never held political office.
His task is a lonely one, the bachelor admits. “If I was to say I had a life, that would be a lie,” Bilawal tells French news agency AFP. “Netflix is a lifesaver.”
Although the Bhuttos once dominated politics, analysts say Bilawal faces an uphill battle in 2018, with cricketer-turned-opposition stalwart Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf on the ascent, and the ruling PML-N of deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif clawing at support.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the PPP and ascended to the highest civil office in the land, followed by Benazir, who was elected PM twice and was running a third time when she was killed in a gun and bomb attack on December 27, 2007. “If they stopped assassinating us then my mother would be in the foreign office and I would still be a student,” says Bilawal.
Bilawal was named PPP chairman after his mother’s death but, still just a student, he returned to Oxford. Since her death the PPP has seen its fortunes plunge, and few are willing to bet on Bilawal shepherding it back to glory. But there are flickers of life.
When Bilawal took the stage at the PPP’s golden jubilee celebrations in Islamabad last week, surprised observers put the crowd at around 25,000 ? higher than recent rival gatherings.
Much like his charismatic mother, Bilawal was forthright at the lectern, confronting militancy and the military alike. “We have to continue our progressive struggle and defeat the conspiracies of dictatorship,” he thundered as the crowd roared. But away from the podium he cuts a shyer persona. “My mother often said that she didn’t choose this life, it chose her,” he said during the interview at the family home in Karachi. “The same applies to me.”
Bilawal’s father and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari ? nicknamed “Mr 10 Per cent” over the many graft claims against him ? took control as the party swept the 2008 elections, presiding over its years of decay, fuelled by allegations of corruption and incompetence.
Questions linger over Bilawal’s ability to lead the PPP if power still ultimately rests with Zardari. Bilawal argues his youth is an asset: “I have time on my side.” Reports suggest he plans to contest his mother’s old seat in Sindh. He dismisses concerns over his own security, saying: “We don’t give in to fear.”
But observers note that the protection surrounding Bilawal, his elite status and time abroad could be sequestering him from voters ? some of who want more than just another scion. “Under the dynastic politics, democracy has been laid to rest,”” says a resident of Karachi, Sardar Zulfiqar. But attendees at the golden jubilee have faith, clinging to the PPP’s veneer of progressiveness as the country remains locked in a tug-of-war between far-right politics and democratic moderates.
Asma Gillani, 52, has supported the party since she first heard ZAB on the radio as a child, right up to the moment she lost hearing in one ear as she was hit by the blast wave in the attack that killed Benazir. As Benazir’s young son takes the stage she remarks: “God willing he will lead this country.”