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18. February 2008

Benazir Bhutto und Edit Schlaffer © FoG

Edit Schlaffer talking with Benazir Bhutto in her house in Dubai in autumn 2006.

"I was never afraid"

While still in exile in Dubai, Benazir Bhutto spoke with my about the future of her nation. She fell victim to an assassination last December. A posthumous interview following the elections in Pakistan on February 18

Benazir Bhutto, a legend even during her lifetime, fell victim to an assassination. I met her during her exile in Dubai in her living room where small groups of individuals had gathered which could not have differed more from each other: Western diplomats in pinstripes, tribal representatives in harem pants, and women in flowing black shalwar khameez.

Benazir Bhutto was charismatic, eloquent, and handsome. Thanks to her education in English and American elite universities, she was open to Western liberal values; at the same time, her life was significantly influenced by her dynastic ambitions. She was a courageous woman who realistically assessed the Islamic threat and became a symbol of hope and unity during a critical turning point in the history of her country.

You decisively helped to shape Pakistan’s history and are determined to do this again. But the public wants to know: who is the real Benazir Bhutto?

I am Benazir, the first Muslim woman to become prime minister; this is the cornerstone of my identity. I have my father’s encouragement to thank for that. He was the best mentor you could imagine. And then I had the good fortune to study at Harvard during Professor Martina Horner’s time there – a young woman who did research on women’s fear of success. As a 16-year-old student I swore to myself: Benazir, you will never fall into this trap.

It is a global phenomenon: women often don’t get ahead because no one gives them the confidence to make the best of themselves.

That is still the case, although not for the elite. Members of the elite have many advantages; different standards apply to them. When we use our privileges appropriately, we can overcome many obstacles. As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, I had unique opportunities. Therefore, I never viewed being part of the elite as negative; rather, I saw it as my privilege and duty to make the best of my standing.

The elites, however – especially in your part of the world – are still male; the laws of the patriarchy determine policy and daily life for men and women.

That is true, but I was undaunted and was never afraid. That is still the case today. I did not let the threats and remonstrations that the people of a Muslim country would never vote for a woman get in the way of my candidacy. Had I not been convinced during my first campaign that I would be able to prove otherwise, had I not had the courage for this test run, I never would have known if it were possible. I am utterly convinced that it is important for me to take risks. Nothing wagered, nothing gained – this was the leitmotif of my childhood.

Was it of importance to you that you were a female representative? Today you have to listen to accusations that you squandered your startup capital and did too little for reform, especially for the women of your country.

I had to recognize that you are truly alone at the top. The intrigues were unbelievable. My father often warned me to be wary of flattery. But I was never flattered, nor was I criticized very much; instead people tried to manipulate me. While on death row, my father said to me: do not listen to the people who seek to strew the seeds of doubt in your thoughts. At the beginning of my first term in office I was too compliant, which many people exploited for the advancement of their own rivalries. In reality, I was still unbelievably young and unsure of myself, but I learned quickly and developed my own viewpoints, to the horror of some of my advisors.

You experienced on a personal level how difficult it was to prevail in traditional Pakistani society.

Yes, that it correct. In Pakistan there is a very established image of women. The chief of army simply refused to salute me. He ordered his officers to never pick me up from the airport, so that there would be no video clips of them saluting me. My husband was attacked, because he allowed me to be so active. Before they deposed me, they sent a commander to him who suggested I step down for his benefit. It was unbearable for them to have a woman at the top. My brother was manipulated to the point that he suggested to my mother that, as the male heir, he was the ideal party leader. These were very targeted attempts to divide my family and to weaken me.

With your decision to accept an arranged marriage, you did anything but question the traditional values and norms that govern and determine how men and women live together.

My family chose my husband for me, but I was allowed to see him before marriage and I accepted him. Why? To be politically active, I needed my own home. I would have been unacceptable as a single woman. Every time I planned a get together in the living room of my parents’ home, I would have had to ask my sisters-in-law for permission. And I wanted a husband and children – how else would that have worked? Simply going out with a man was not an option.

So what have you done for the women of Pakistan? You grew up privileged, with a modern father who did not distinguish between you and your brothers.

I became very active in the fight against domestic violence in my country. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, this crime was made punishable. We therefore started TV programs to inform the public that violence in the home would not be tolerated. You cannot imagine the wave of protest that flooded over me; male politicians as well as women stood up against me and blamed me for dragging our country through the dirt and leaving it exposed, for all to see. I was determined to upgrade the school system, so I recruited 100,000 new teachers and demanded that two-thirds had to be women to bring them out into the public. Police stations for women were established so that women could talk in a safe environment about the crimes that had been committed against them. Offering victims a step in the direction of justice is an important step, especially in a gender-segregated society like Pakistan. I addressed issues that a man in my position most certainly would not have touched.

Which other issues have you addressed?

Our exploding birthrate, for example. The UN organized a population summit in Cairo. I was under a lot of pressure to drop the issue, but I knew that it was fundamental to the future of our country. Any economic successes we may achieve will be destroyed by uncontrolled population growth. When women do not have control over their reproductive rights, then they run the risk of being malnourished, getting sick more easily, and not being able to work. The biggest challenge was simply reaching the women; they were afraid of taking charge of their own lives and were too unsure of what the consequences would be. I decided to address the women directly, and we planned to recruit a whole army of women to engage in targeted sexual education. In the first three years of my regime we managed to mobilize and educate over 50,000 women. This might not be a large success in the international political arena, but it is of great importance to the lives of the people in our country.

There is currently a discussion about male and female styles of leadership, specifically the ways they deal with power. The “soft skills” leadership style, often labeled as feminine, was not necessarily your personal hallmark.

Readiness for hard work and iron discipline are the basic traits needed for politics; both are prominent characteristics of mine. But in addition, there was my subjective standard: I had to prove at all times that I was as good as a male head of state. I was determined to appear as tough as any male leader, so as to show that I was a female man. During my first term in office, I did everything in my power to be perceived this way. But when I came back to Pakistan the second time, I was determined to no longer have to prove that I could be as strong as a man in power. I recognized that I can represent the female form of political leadership and that this is a whole different story. Like many women in leadership positions, I had fallen into the classical trap: you are only accepted when you appear as uncompromising and masculine as possible. The rhetoric thereby automatically becomes harder, more warlike. When people vote for a woman, they express that they want a different, more caring political approach, a political approach that addresses their daily concerns.

Time spent in exile can perhaps be used most effectively for reflection and analysis. When you look back today at your time as prime minister, what do you think went well and what would you do differently?

I knew that I was on the right path when I invested in education, but it was not enough – using education to achieve democracy in the most general sense is the basis for our future. Only a pluralistic society that overcomes the old patriarchal societies – in which no one poses questions – can meet the challenges of today. Elections are only one step in the direction of societal transformation; you also need military and judicial systems that are mindful of democracy.

You announced your return to Pakistan; what makes you think that the majority of the public will welcome you back?

I have proven that I stand for democracy. The extremists naturally tried to destabilize us, but as long as I was there and Pakistan was democratic, these extremist powers were not able to transform Afghanistan into a place from which they declared war on the West. The Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, in 1990 my regime was toppled and then there was the attack on the World Trade Center. At that point in time, Pakistan was close to being declared a terrorist state. I was reelected and we were able to push back the terrorist threat. There was no terrorism.

But then the Taliban seized power and soon after the world experienced the threats issued by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

During my time as prime minister, there was huge pressure on the Taliban to work with the UN. When I had to go, the Taliban immediately welcomed Al Qaeda, which they would not have dared to do earlier. The extremists had to get rid of me because they needed a base from which they could operate. And once again: the Taliban without Al Qaeda were an entirely different story.

How hopeful are you that there will be elections in which you will play a decisive role?

After 9/11, the fight against terror will not be possible without fair, free elections in Pakistan. I clearly see the direction in which the efforts are going: to protect the elections from the extremists. They will present Musharraf as an enlightened moderate. But as long as Musharraf is there, the Taliban will band together again and consolidate their power; I’ve been saying this for years. And what do we have to go through today? They have already established Taliban rule in Pakistan’s tribal areas, right under the nose of Musharraf, who is one of the West’s closest allies.

What are your plans for the immediate future?

I plan to play a role in the future of my country. I will never give up my dream for a Pakistan that lives in peace with Afghanistan and India and that allows its people to live with dignity and security.


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