We miss you, Benazir Bhutto

There is no cut-off date for grief; every moment, big or small, happy or sad, unearths a new wellspring of loss

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Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. — AFP/File
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. — AFP/File

As December 27 approaches, we are filled with the same grief and hollowness that left us bereft 15 years ago. Mourning any loss doesn’t only occur in the moment, or for 40 days after it. There is no cut-off date for grief. Every moment, big or small, happy or sad, unearths a new wellspring of loss. 

But then we are forced to dry our tears, take an extra breath, and set aside our immeasurable pain and put on a brave face. Much like we did that horrific 15 years ago.

And through the grief, we are compelled to recall the reasons our mother came back. Pakistan was in a desperate situation. A treasonous dictator had terrorised the people, ravaged democratic institutions, and left us at the mercy of terrorists. 

The country was in need of a champion. Someone to raise their voice, someone to fight for the rights of the people, someone to stem and undo the rot of eight years of dictatorial rule. She was the only one who could salvage it — and give hope to the people, unite them, fight for them.

One article, or even a series of articles would be insufficient to encapsulate Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s immense love for her country and her unwavering commitment to its people and their welfare.

As the first woman prime minister in the Muslim world, she carried a very heavy burden. Her conduct shaped the future of billions of women across the world who would come after her. And our mother was incredibly aware of that burden. To quote her: “It is not easy being a woman anywhere. 

Moreover, for women leaders, the obstacles are greater, the demands are greater, the barriers are greater, and the double standards are greater.”

Despite her two tenures, both cut short by the abuse of dictatorial laws, not even equalling one full constitutional five-year term, Benazir Bhutto transformed the country. She revolutionised foreign policy and international relations, national technology policy, the economy, women’s rights, climate change, agriculture, energy, defence and nuclear programme, human resource development and labour — there was no facet of governance she did not address or plan to reform. 

In the short period of 39 months spread over two terms, she achieved more than any successive government, elected, selected or imposed in Pakistan.

If one were to focus on just her initiatives for the women of Pakistan, one would be hard-pressed to find such rapid strides elsewhere. She believed that no nation would succeed unless its women stood as equals and broke free from the patriarchal chains that shackled them. As she famously said in Beijing, “It is my conviction that we can only conquer poverty, squalor, illiteracy and superstition when we invest in our women and when our women begin working.”

She found great inspiration in the status given to women in Islam, one of true empowerment and dignity. 

Empowerment, she taught us, “is not only a right to have political freedom. Empowerment is the right to be independent; to be educated; to have choices in life. Empowerment is the right to have the opportunity to select a productive career; to own property; to participate in business; to flourish in the market place”.

At the forefront of her goals was for women to achieve financial and economic empowerment. She believed that “economic independence is the key to free choice and therefore, to freedom and dignity”. 

A relentless advocate of providing women opportunities to serve and excel, SMBB announced the reservation of a 10% quota for women in public-sector jobs. 

This also inspired her to launch the First Women Bank. The First Women Bank employed only women, and provided services and gave loans only to women. Access to capital enabled thousands of women to start their businesses and become financially independent.

SMBB was also cognisant of the lack of security and access to mechanisms of protection which women faced. The PPP has always been mindful of the need to provide women a safe haven to report crimes and seek justice. Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first prime minister to recruit women into the police force, and our mother took his vision further and introduced all-women police stations. 

The creation of a women’s police force with separate police stations was aimed to create an atmosphere where women would feel comfortable asking for assistance and talking about the violence that is all too often perpetuated on them. She believed that in patriarchal societies such as ours, women’s issues often were written off by men. 

There was ample evidence that women did not feel safe or comfortable filing complaints and regularly faced harassment when they went to report crimes. By setting up all-women police stations, manned and staffed only by women, SMBB made it possible for women across Pakistan to get access to justice and the protection of the state.

To build upon the initiative of women’s right to justice, she launched free legal aid cells across districts in Pakistan, within the first 100 days of her government, providing access and insight into legal remedies and options available to oppressed women.

For SMBB, after access to the safe spaces of all-women police stations, and access to free legal aid, the next logical step was to have female representation in the courts. 

Under the SZAB government, women judges had been appointed to the district and session courts, but not a single woman had been elevated to a high court in the 11 years of martial law that followed. 

SMBB appointed five women to the high courts and shattered the glass ceiling that created a precedent for appointments on merit and not gender. She saw this three-pronged approach of access to safe police stations, free legal advice, and the appointment of women justices to the high courts as the foundation for access of justice and the empowerment of women through it.

As a woman prime minister and a young mother herself, SMBB was personally invested in and entirely cognizant of the importance of access to healthcare as a form of empowerment for women. She increased Pakistan’s health budget by 60%, underlining her commitment to the health sector, and focused initiatives on women’s health. 

“As a woman leader,” she said, “I thought I brought a different kind of leadership. I was interested in women’s issues, in bringing down the population growth rate... as a woman, I entered politics with an additional dimension – that of a mother.”

Recognising our cultural realities, she understood that the majority of Pakistani women would only have access to quality healthcare if provided by women themselves. To that end, she introduced the revolutionary concept of lady health workers. 

Recruiting and training an army of 50,000 women, she brought healthcare to the doorstep of every Pakistani woman. The Lady Health Worker Programme tackled problems of infant and maternal mortality, reproductive health, and population control. This unique programme inspired a healthcare revolution, not just in Pakistan, but in the many countries, it has been replicated in. 

The Lady Health Worker Programme also formed the backbone of Pakistan’s first polio eradication drive, with door-to-door vaccination campaigns. Not only did SMBB launch Pakistan’s polio eradication programme in 1994, but she also began it by administering the first drops to her own child, to bolster public confidence and allay anti-vaccination propaganda in the country. Her efforts were recognised by the World Health Organisation which awarded her a gold medal in honour and recognition of Pakistan’s efforts to eliminate polio and provide basic healthcare.

If only SMBB hadn’t been so cruelly and ruthlessly taken away from us. Her manifesto gives us a glimpse as to what might have been achievable in her third term. It is this "what if" that gives rise to even more grief. We were anticipating being overcome with sadness on birthdays and graduations because those were the milestones we could imagine for ourselves as children. But as we grew older, and life progressed, your loss became even more apparent. You had always protected us from the harsh reality of the political persecution you and our father faced. 

We knew that we’d be facing courts, running to and from jails, but you had shielded us from the emotional toll it would bring. And when we were forced to deal with all the persecution, only then did the magnitude of your strength and resilience become even more awe-inspiring and our loss deepened.

In addition to our happiness, Bakhtawar’s wedding in January 2021 brought with it the unimaginable void where our mother should have been. We missed your laughter, the pride you would have felt, the joy that would have been on your face, and the sheer light of your presence as you saw your eldest daughter start a new chapter in her life. 

Then we were blessed with baby Mir Hakim, and baby Mir Sijawal. The void grew even larger. To say we were unprepared to feel this combination of excruciating pain and boundless joy would be an understatement. 

I had never fathomed that two such conflicting emotions could co-exist, and yet they did. Every mother dreams of seeing their children getting married and the happiness that goes with it. Your regret that your father couldn’t live to see his grandchildren has become more poignant for us and has now transferred to us — forever hurting, forever festering.

In 2018, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari took oath as an MNA, standing in the same house as his mother and father. Every time he spoke in parliament and in February this year when he embarked on a long march like you, we missed you. 

Every milestone achieved we felt your presence and were reminded of your absence. As we watched your son unite the opposition and democratically remove a selected prime minister, and then be sworn in as the youngest foreign minister in history, our hearts swelled with pride for him, whilst they ached for you. 

The grand halls of the presidency roared with chants of "Jeay Bhutto", and standing by our side were your sister, Sanam Bhutto, and your husband, Asif Ali Zardari. Amidst the joy and happiness, we wondered "what if?” 

The presidency saw your swearing in as prime minister in 1988 and 1993, but it was hard to escape the thought of what would have been the historic moment of your third oath taking as prime minister in that moment. And as Bilawal has forged his path as the foreign minister, it is impossible to not see the same drive, determination, and hope that we saw in you.

Picking up the pieces and trying to keep together a nation fragmented by your loss was an impossible situation. The festering wound that was your father’s assassination had been reopened by yours, but a singular voice called out in your name, "Pakistan Khappay". 

It was necessary to remind people of what you would have wanted — a strong, united, progressive Pakistan, even in that moment of our collective grief. And it is only because of your guiding principle, vocalised by president Asif Ali Zardari, that the party, the country, its allies and institutions were able to lay the foundation of a first democratic government that was able to complete its term. 

Despite the many roadblocks laid, and hurdles planted, your party thwarted the nefarious designs of many who were unwilling to change their old divisive ways.

Your mission — fighting democratically within the system — made it possible to lay the foundation of an egalitarian Pakistan. The next five years were spent trying desperately to live up to your vision. And in that, your party has made you proud. 

We admit anything that had been accomplished would have succeeded tenfold had you been present. Despite the colossal loss of a visionary forward-thinking leader, the PPP-led by president Asif Ali Zardari, in the face of a global recession was able to create 6.5 million jobs. 

It also created the revolutionary Benazir Income Support Program with a focus on financially empowering women across Pakistan, strengthened provincial autonomy by passing the ground-breaking 18th Amendment, and restoring the 1973 constitution, which was the culmination of three decades of your struggle. 

And this too at the height of the war on terror. Your party did all this and more, but we are forever mindful of the fact that these achievements, though substantial, still fall short of all that you would have achieved had you been allowed to serve your country for the third time.

When elections were rigged, we once again turned to your guiding principles. Democratic continuity, you taught us, was one of the most important things for our country. And despite our grievances and reservations, the PPP did what you would do: strengthen the federation and rebuild democracy in Pakistan by staying in the system and fighting for change.

We miss you. Your country, your party, and world are still missing your voice, your wisdom, and your insights. Despite what they did to you and to your family — despite the jails, the atrocities, the sinister plots against you, the breaking of your family, the tarnishing of your reputation — your spirit remained unbroken. And you inspired so many to withstand torment at the hands of tyrants.

Asif Ali Zardari, who was made to pay the heaviest price for marrying you, spent years in jail, enduring torture, but refused to cower or compromise. He rose to the task and committed to doing the work you left unfinished. 

Only because those around you realised what propelled you — the need to serve this land and its people. The need to better the circumstances of your beloved Pakistan. A Pakistan that today stands, poorer for your loss. Through every difficult time, and every uncertain moment, we silently pray “Ya Allah Karamat Ker De BB Shaheed Ko Zinda Ker De” [Oh god, grant us a miracle. Bring Shaheed Bibi back to us].

The writer is late Benazir Bhutto’s younger daughter.

Originally published in The News