Persian Princess of Pakistan; Benazir Bhutto

Since Benazir and I are both half-Persians I always found her life to be interesting (I could never get enough of her quip that she knew enough Persian to understand the family gossip). I was randomly googling her when I came across this startling excerpt. I don’t know much about this incident?

You surely know that one of the most psychologically formative experiences for the young Benazir was growing up in a house where her father (Zulfikar) gave his Persian mistress pride of place in the home. Benazir would come to breakfast with her father and mistress at the table while her mother ate from a tray quietly and alone in her bedroom in another wing of the house. When one tries to understand how Benazir came to have her husband kill her brother, it helps to know what a strange childhood she had. Salman Rushdie’s thinly-veiled roman a clef about the Bhuttos and Zia, Shame, captures some of this atmosphere quite well.

Apparently Nusrat left back to Iran for 6months but wasn’t allowed to take the children with her (Islamic law on divorce & custody being as enlightening as it was) but to be fair I’ve always found Zulfikar to be a somewhat disdainful and problematic character. I had heard in his last years that he had a Bengali mistress (nicknamed Black Beauty) who now lived with her female lover in Karachi but I have no idea what to believe.
It’s remarkable the extent to which Benazir looked like her mother. In the picture below I could have sworn this was was Benazir, not Nusrat, who was with the Shah and his elegant wife Farah Diba.
Born on March 23, 1929, Nusrat had lived a life of comfort after marrying Mr Bhutto as his second wife in 1951. In this file photo, Begum Bhutto is seen along with their imperial majesties, the Shahanshah Arymehr and Shahbano of Iran, Prime Minister Zulifikar Ali Bhutto and President Fazal Illahi Chaudhry. ? Dawn File Photo

A few remarkable facts about Benazir were:

(1) Her Height; she would tower over men. She was the tallest woman in the room and even when she gained weight over the last years of her life, she was always graceful.

(2) Her ability to code-switch: Benazir went to the best schools in the West (Oxford & Harvard) and excelled in that milieu. She was the President of the Oxford Union, she introduced Theresa May to her future husband and in general managed to stay above the fray (the fact that no one knows if she had antics is a credit to both her wiliness and conservatism). Furthermore she only learnt Urdu in the 80’s and could only read it Romanised. I just listened to a speech of hers in Sindhi and I had to cringe; it’s something I wouldn’t dare show my in-laws (Sindhi Hindus consider Benazir as the only Muslim Sindhi just as Pathans consider Raj Kapoor as the only Hindu Pashtun). However Benazir was still able to speak directly to the people of Pakistan in a way no politician in the modern era has been able to.

(3) Eclipsing her Father; Benazir as an icon and status eclipsed her father. It’s interesting to see Indira eclipsed hers; Jawaharlal Nehru was a formative nation-builder however Indira indisputably built the dynasty. However Bilawal’s political legitimacy rests upon him being the son of Benazir rather than the grandchild of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (otherwise Fatima Bhutto would have a clear run for it). The Bhuttos operated primogeniture when there was a male heir (Murtaza) and BB was the open favourite of her father.

(4) She managed to charm India & the West. She projected Pakistan’s soft-power status to traditionally hostile territory and as is typical of a bi-cultural child was also able to appease the domestic audience (obviously not entirely considering her tragic assassination).

(5). She prefigured the iconic rise of Pakistani women. Malala, Nergis Mavalwala and so many other Pakistani woman who are famous on the world stage (Nergis M is an incidental Pakistani, being Parsi and abroad for all of her adult life) owe some tiny thanks for Benazir who blazed a trail on the global stage. If Fatima Jinnah had won the 1966 election there might have still been an East Pakistan, the first female world leader being Pakistan and a host of other “first'” but that was to be Benazir’s destiny. Pakistani women can have her as an inspiration; BB was indeed a product of privilege (as was Indira) but like Indira somehow managed to channel those energies to become indelibly linked with her country.

I’m sure there are more but I’ll let commentators fill it in.

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6 thoughts on “Persian Princess of Pakistan; Benazir Bhutto”

  1. Persian mistress? This is the first I’m hearing of it.

    Benazir “having her husband kill her brother” is an accusation. It has never been proved. Fatima Bhutto (Murtaza’s daughter) does believe that her phuppo and phuppa had her father killed, but I don’t know what that says about Fatima’s psychology. Incidentally, Fatima’s brother, Zulfi Junior creates homoerotic art. So much for Murtaza’s children.

    Good point about Bilawal’s political legacy resting on him being the son of Benazir. So much so that after his mother’s death, his name was officially changed to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. In patriarchal Pakistani society, he should really just be called Bilawal Zardari (the mother’s name generally goes away). But of course in PPP politics, it is the Bhutto name that carries the magic. His sisters had the name Bhutto added to their names as well. Bilawal’s Urdu is even more egregious than his mother’s by the way. Note: Bilawal “inherited” the PPP in Benazir’s will–nice way for a “democratic” party to work.

    “Shame” is a classic novel and among Rushdie’s best work. The character based on Benazir is called “Arjumand Harrapa” and known as “The Virgin Iron-Pants”. Highly recommend reading “Shame”.

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    1. Interesting comment – yes I’m surprised that Bilawal wasn’t better groomed for power

      At the least he should have learnt Urdu & Sindh properly

      Finally he should have made an effort with his weight; he’s not as well-presented as he could be..

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      1. Bilawal has a degree in History from Oxford (Ref: Wikipedia). He is apparently being tutored by Sherry Rehman and other major figures in the PPP. He is studying his Nana’s and his mother’s speeches.

        But my point was that he is 29 (as old as my younger brother) and has no practical political experience. What qualifies him to be Chairman of PPP other than the fact that he is Benazir’s son? That is not the way that a party that supposedly fought for democracy should work. What makes Bilawal any better than Maryam Nawaz Sharif, her father’s heir apparent? Interestingly enough, just as Bilawal has taken on his mother’s name, Maryam Nawaz has ditched her married name “Maryam Safdar” for her father’s name. In the dynastic PML(N), the Sharif name is what counts.

        PPP is basically only functioning in Sindh because the Sindhi masses treat the Bhutto dynasty as demigods. It has been mostly wiped out in the rest of Pakistan. Pakistan is a centre-right country and the PPP is not a centre-right party.

        In my post on Habib Jalib, you should see his scathing political remarks about Benazir when she restored democracy after the Zia dictatorship. Jalib was nothing if not brutally honest.

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        1. I liked ur Habib Jalib post – now that we have defended Pakistan’s honour on BP we can talk about more qualitative stuff!

          Re Bilawal; physically he is neither like his mother or grandfather.

          There is nothing wrong with Dynastic politics, that’s why we should have had a Constitutional Caliph in Pakistan. Maybe a Mughal descendant married to an Ottoman?

          The Urdu poetry socialist movement has an astonishing history; virtually all the Urdu poets were including to anti-communalism and socialism (Arabic & Farsi of course have strong poetic traditions but their politics were always more communist than socialist – I don’t know enough about the area though). What does one expect from a humane, civilised and syncretic tongue like Urdu.

          Of topic my best friend is doing his PhD thesis on the Benazir Bhutto welfare support program; I should ask him to contribute his thoughts (he’s a strong PPP supporter because he’s a liberal progressive).

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          1. I disagree with you regarding dynastic politics. They are not democratic. Chairmanships of political parties are not one’s personal assets to be handed down to one’s children in a will (btw, no one has ever seen this will, we were just told that’s what it said). But dynasties are a reality in South Asia–the Nehru-Gandhis in India, and the Bhuttos and Sharifs in Pakistan. When Nawaz Sharif was stopped by the Supreme Court from being president of PML-N, he said “Fine, now Shahbaz will be President and I will be Quaid for life”. I don’t like Imran Khan at all, but at least his half-British children aren’t vying to lead Pakistan.

            I have nothing against Bilawal but he should prove himself first. He’s not even a Member of the National Assembly. How can he chair a political party?

            By the way, here’s the reference on Zulfi Junior:

            http://strutsf.org/event/mussalmaan-musclemen-opening-reception-for-the-art-of-zulfikar-ali-bhutto/

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          2. Please do ask your friend to contribute to the discussion. PPP is not really a “liberal” party though. It was Z.A. Bhutto who declared the Ahmadis non-Muslim. His remarks about Bengalis also don’t bear repeating.

            But I guess in the Pakistani context it is the most mainstream “liberal” party we’ve got.

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