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Benazir Bhutto: Uncensored and Unfettered

| February 22, 2010

As a Pakistani American, the author has come to understand Benazir Bhutto over the years in different contexts. So she was surprised to discover fresh insights in a new documentary about the slain charismatic leader.

I was already of several minds about Benazir Bhutto, the first woman in the world to have led a Muslim state, before I saw the new documentary about her, showcased last month at the Sundance Film Festival 2010.

Living in Pakistan, I thought Bhutto was all about politics: a power-driven eccentric. When I moved to the United States, I noticed how that very trait was celebrated as determination against all the odds she confronted in my religiously charged and democratically flawed homeland.

Though contradictory, both points of view are understandable within the context of perceptions. For Westerners, hers is the story of a struggler; and, for Pakistanis, she is the quintessential feudal lord’s daughter. Not all think the same, of course. Some factions of Pakistani society, especially women, perceive her as a symbol of the new Pakistani woman: forward-thinking yet rooted in traditional rock, and aggressive but maternal.

Whatever one’s opinion, the aspect to Bhutto’s personality that enchanted one and all was her aura. More often than not, the former Oxford Union president charmed listeners into a false reality about herself, of being a political messiah for Pakistan. Confronted with her persona, it was easy to forget the debacles of her two tenures as the prime minister. It was during her rule that the Taliban gained momentum in Afghanistan. She did little to nothing for the welfare of Pakistani women. And, she faced several corruption charges.

That record used to be foremost in my mind. I judged her on the basis of her political aspirations. But I found a context for her actions after I saw her through the eyes of Mary Anne Weaver, who wrote a celebrated profile on her for The New Yorker in 1993. The introductory paragraphs of Weaver’s piece paint the picture of Benazir, the daughter, who was at the verge of losing her father—just the night before he was hung. The pain of her meeting with her father, who had been ousted as prime minister by a coup, hours before he died hit me in the gut. She had pleaded with the jailer so that she could “embrace” him and “say a proper goodbye.”  If I previously assumed she was on a vendetta to avenge the death of her “papa,” I could now understand why.

“Benazir had a very idealized version of her father who she deeply respected and revered,” said Claudia Dreifus to me. Dreifus, who included Bhutto in her 1997 book Interviews, was my professor at Columbia University. She helped me see Bhutto through the relationships she cherished—the most interesting being wife to a man who is popularly referred to as the person responsible for her politically tarnished image and who is Pakistan’s current president, having taken up her mantle after her assassination. For Benazir Bhutto, though, he was someone who could “spoil” and “comfort” her.

“With Asif, for once,” said Bhutto in the interview with Dreifus, “I had somebody with whom I'd lay my hair on the pillow and feel I was safe.” While she admitted she married for the “sake of career,” her craving for love took over.

As if all this weren’t sufficiently complex, “Bhutto”—the new documentary mostly based on her conversations with Linda Bird Francke, the co-author of Benazir Bhutto’s autobiography—reveals a startlingly different side to her personality that is more human and less political. Surprisingly intimate moments of Benazir’s life—where she misses her children, longs for her husband’s return from jail and cries for her mysteriously dead brother—provide a sharp contrast to her otherwise power-driven persona.

What especially stands out for me is the role of the men in her life: the father she followed, the brother she rivaled, the husband she loved, and the son who follows her now.

Benazir Bhutto, in defense against the patriarchal-feudal culture of her family, kept her male human relations intentionally at bay—away from media-fed mass consumption. She maintained a stronger-than-men popular image, unaffected by the rigors of emotional isolation and readjustment. But around Western women, she could afford to be her true self. Uncensored and unfettered.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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