To me, and millions in Pakistan and around the world, yesterday (June 21) was not just another summer day. It had a special and tragic meaning. June 21 would have been the 56th birthday of one of the most extraordinary women in modern Muslim history, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Like the women in early Islamic history, Mohtarma also dramatically influenced the course of Islamic society and inspired the community of believers all over the world. For me, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was far more than an iconic leader, far more than a symbol of boundless opportunity and hope for women; she was a personal inspiration whom I miss so deeply that even writing this essay brings tears to my eyes.
Shaheed Benazir Bhutto was intellectually unequalled, brave beyond description, and so dedicated to her people and to her country that she sacrificed her personal happiness and ultimately her life fighting for the principles of democracy, economic development and human rights that defined her and inspired her followers. She taught many Pakistani women, including me, by action and by mentoring, to reject glass ceilings or any barriers to full participation in our religion, our society, our family and in the politics of our country. She went before the US Congress in 1989, and in a speech shown live on television in Pakistan and around the world, told the women of America, the women of our homeland, and indeed women all over the planet that ‘yes, we can’. Long before Barack Obama adopted this slogan as the message of his presidential campaign, Benazir Bhutto created it, proselytised it and lived it.
The first woman ever elected head of the government of a Muslim state, and the youngest chief executive in the world during her first government, Mohtarma was perhaps the most recognised woman on earth, a household name and inspiration to women on all continents. She was young, she was beautiful, she was spectacularly educated and wealthy. She could have lived a happy and comfortable life anywhere in the world, surrounded by the people and family she loved and doing the professional work she always longed for. But that, as she said, was not her destiny. In her autobiography, Daughter of the East, she begins by saying “I didn’t choose this life; it chose me.” Never once through her fight for democracy against dictatorship. Neither as prime minister in her two governments nor in her heroic role as leader of the opposition did she ever complain, feel sorry for herself or be bitter.
Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto thought self-pity was wasted energy and a distraction from the important agenda before our nation. She never accepted the status quo and was always challenging us with ideas, demanding new approaches and experimentation, looking for models abroad that could be applied to the Pakistani economy, polity and society. She took on the militant extremists who have attempted to hijack our cherished religion. She denounced them, using the words of the Holy Book itself, to rebut their arguments about democracy, about tolerance, about women’s rights, and about technology and modernity.
Shaheed Benazir Bhutto never cried for herself, for the trials that she and her family were put through by dictators and despots who sought to destroy her as a symbol of Pakistan’s democratic struggle. Because she was so cherished by her people, her political enemies often sought to discredit her by attacking her family and friends. That pained her and angered her because she was a woman fully capable of, and willing to, fighting her own battles.
And in the end, in her very last speech, in her last words on that last black day, she prophesised to our nation that “we will bury our dead, but there will be a Bhutto in every alley.” This was a way of telling all of us, in her unique way, that the force of democracy, equality and modernity will ultimately prevail in Pakistan. She rose up to remind us that justice couldn’t forever be denied. She said “despite everything that has happened, time, justice and the force of history is on our side.” In her memory, we must prove that true.