Iconic Women

Benazir Bhutto: Pakistan's Trailblazing First Female Prime Minister

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Oct 18, 2023

Benazir Bhutto was the first Muslim woman leader in contemporary history. She was Pakistan's Prime Minister for two terms, from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. Bhutto was the daughter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who ruled the country from 1971 until 1977. She attended Harvard University where she got a BA. in 1973 and then the University of Oxford got a B.A. in 1976, where she studied philosophy, political science, and economics before obtaining a doctoral degree in international law. 


Soon after Bhutto finished her studies and returned to Pakistan in 1977 according to Brittanica, her father was overthrown by Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, who appointed himself as supreme martial law administrator. Following her father's execution in 1979, Bhutto became the leader of her father's party, the Pakistan Muslim League. From 1979 to 1984, he was a member of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and was subjected to regular house arrest. After living in exile from 1984 to 1986, she returned to Pakistan following the lifting of martial law and quickly rose to prominence in the political opposition against Zia. President Zia died in a mystery plane crash in August 1988, leaving a power vacuum at the heart of Pakistani politics. Bhutto's PPP secured the single largest bloc of members in the National Assembly in the subsequent elections.


Bhutto became the country's first female prime minister and the head of its first civilian government since the breakup of her father's government in 1977 on December 1, 1988. She forged a tenuous coalition with independent legislators from Sindh, her home province, but they abandoned her. As ethnic tensions in that province grew, the coalition was formed the next year. Without their help, Bhutto would have been unable to pass legislation addressing Pakistan's fundamental challenges, such as pervasive poverty, governmental corruption, and rising crime. Meanwhile, she faced the burden of a strained relationship with military command. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Pakistan's president, sacked her government in August 1990, accusing it of corruption and other misbehaviour and calling for new elections. Bhutto's PPP was defeated in the national elections in October 1990, and she went on to lead the parliamentary opposition against her successor, Nawaz Sharif.


In the October 1993 elections, the PPP received a plurality of votes and defeated Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party in every province—including Sharif's own.

Except for Balochistan, Punjab is their native province. During her second tenure, Bhutto advanced Pakistan's foreign relations, recruited foreign investment, and launched social programs. Furthermore, she had a significant friend in the president, Farooq Leghari, a PPP member. However, Pakistan's economy remained shaky, and law and order deteriorated. Meanwhile, her brother, Murtaza, accused her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, of corruption, engulfing her in scandal. Leghari ousted Bhutto's administration in November 1996, as public confidence in her dwindled.


Shortly before Musharraf's reelection, amid unresolved discussions about a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf's military regime, he ultimately awarded Bhutto a long-sought pardon for corruption. The Sharif administration brought allegations against her. However, the Supreme Court ruled that Musharraf's ability to grant amnesty was illegal. 


Nonetheless, Bhutto returned to Karachi from Dubai in October 2007, following an eight-year self-imposed exile. The celebrations honouring her return were overshadowed by a suicide attack on her motorcade, which murdered a number of her fans. In December 2007, while campaigning for the upcoming general elections, Benazir Bhutto was tragically assassinated in a suicide bombing and gun attack in Rawalpindi. Following her death, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, took over as party head, followed by their son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.


Benazir Bhutto's legacy endures as a trailblazer for women in politics, and her life and career continue to be the subject of much debate and study. Her family has remained involved in Pakistani politics, with her son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari leading the Pakistan People's Party in subsequent years.


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