Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) was the first woman in modern history to lead a Muslim nation.
Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s Leader was a groundbreaking politician who served as Prime Minister of Pakistan twice, making her the first woman in modern history to lead a Muslim nation. Though somewhat controversial due to charges of both corruption and political naivete, she was a champion for Democracy and a force for liberalization and greater personal freedoms in her country. Let’s talk about Benazir Bhutto.
Benazir was born on June 21, 1953 in Karachi, Pakistan to a wealthy, aristocratic family with strong political ties. Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a popular socialist party that would lead Pakistan in the 1970s.
Benazir’s first and primary language was English, though she did speak Urdu on occasion. From a young age, she showed great promise and received a Western-style education at prestigious convent schools in Pakistan.
In 1971, while Benazir was attending Harvard University, her father was elected leader of Pakistan on a socialist platform. Benazir graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1973, and then moved across the Atlantic to the University of Oxford where she studied philosophy, political science, and economics.
In 1977, soon after Benazir finished at Oxford and returned to Pakistan, her father was ousted in a military coup by Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq. Zia became the military dictator of Pakistan. Benazir’s father was executed two years later in 1979.
Though Benazir and her mother were frequently under house arrest from 1979 to 1984, Benazir took up her father’s mantle as head of the PPP. Finally, having had enough of Benazir’s political aspirations, Zia exiled Benazir and her mother. The two moved to London.
In 1986, Zia ended martial law and Benazir and her mother were allowed to return to Pakistan. Benazir quickly became the foremost member of the political opposition to Zia. During her time in England, Benazir admired the work of Margaret Thatcher. Upon her return she shifted the PPP from a socialist platform to a liberal one.
This political shift helped Benazir navigate a political power vacuum created by the mysterious death of Zia in a 1988 plane crash. In the ensuing elections, the PPP won the largest block of seats in the National Assembly, and Benazir was sworn in as Prime Minister on December 1, 1988. This made her the first woman leader of a Muslim nation in modern history.
As Prime Minister, Benazir tried to enact political and social reforms but was almost completely stifled by the Islamist and Conservative parties. As such, she wasn’t able to effectively combat the many issues facing Pakistan, including pervasive corruption, widespread poverty, and an increase in violent crime.
In August of 1990, the President of Pakistan, Ghulan Khan, accused Benazir and her government of corruption and nepotism. Benazir was dismissed from her position and a new election was called. It’s generally accepted that the following election was rigged by Pakistan’s intelligence services to ensure victory for the Islamic Democratic Alliance, or IJI, a conservative party.
In the years that followed, Benazir served as the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly.
In 1993, the IJI government was also dismissed for corruption. In elections held in October of 1993, the PPP again earned a majority of votes and Benazir was Prime Minister of Pakistan once again. This time around Benazir was determined to focus on economic privatization and greater rights for women, two areas that she believed were holding Pakistan back.
Three years later, renewed charges of corruption were brought against Benazir and her government. These new accusations, along with a series of controversies like the assassination of Benazir’s brother and a bribery scandal involving her husband, led to her government’s dismissal by the President.
The PPP took a beating in the 1997 National Assembly elections and Benazir chose to go into self-exile the following year. The new Prime Minister was continuing to pursue what were believed to be politically motivated corruption charges against her. Benazir moved to Dubai and continued to run the PPP from there.
In 2007, rumors began to circulate that Benazir was returning to Pakistan to run in the 2008 elections. She planned to run on a platform of greater military accountability to the civilian government and calls for a stop to growing Islamist violence.
In October, Benazir officially arrived in Karachi from Dubai. There were great celebrations by her supporters following her return from exile, though they were marred by a suicide attack on her motorcade that killed many supporters standing nearby.
After attending a rally on December 27, 2007, Benazir’s motorcade was hit by another suicide attack. This time, Benazir herself was killed.
Though al-Qaeda took responsibility for the attack, it’s widely suspected that the Pakistani Taliban, as well as elements of the intelligence services were also involved.
In the years following her assassination, Benazir has come to be regarded as an icon for women’s rights. She is revered for achieving the highest levels of success in a male-dominated society.
Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leader.
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Talk to you tomorrow!