October 23, 2011 saw Nusrat Bhutto breathe her last. Even though she had been hidden from the public eye for more than a decade, her death is a great loss for our country. Nusrat Bhutto belonged to an age when Pakistan was still a young country, full of promise, hope and aspirations. When she married the dashing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1951, Pakistan was barely a few years old, and had just overcome the initial pangs of birth. Within her lifetime, Pakistan emerged from the shocks of Partition, became an Asian tiger, was split in two, saw three military regimes and ultimately attained its current semi-anarchic state. But together with seeing the slow and painful destruction of her adopted homeland, Nusrat also bravely faced the execution of her husband in a travesty of justice and the untimely death of three of her four offsprings. Her steadfastness, perseverance, loyalty and commitment are qualities which indeed made her the ‘iron lady’ of Pakistan.
Nusrat Bhutto’s merit was that she did not seek limelight for herself. Rather, she supported her husband as first lady and then her daughter, Benazir, when she sought elected office. This ‘supporting role’ was critical for these two prime ministers, as they found in Nusrat a confidante and guide.
Nusrat Bhutto’s main contribution to Pakistan was when she stood up against a dictator when no one was ready to do so — that is when she showed her real mettle as a principled and inspiring leader. Amidst the depth of Ziaul Haq’s repression of the political parties, judiciary, and even the general population, it was Nusrat Bhutto who started the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). The MRD, which was composed of the Peoples Party and several other smaller parties, was the only voice of the people of Pakistan, when it seemed that the country had almost lost its soul due to the draconian polices of the Zia regime. Nusrat led the cause of democracy when several political leaders had left the country and no one was ready the to face the wrath of a vengeful dictator. Nusrat persevered through arrests, beatings, and almost daily disappointments, to finally witness the demise of the Zia regime and the ascendency of her daughter Benazir to power. Certainly, as Benazir later reiterated, democracy was the best revenge.
Nusrat Bhutto was also a strong example for women in Pakistan. When she married Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the majority of Pakistani women had few rights — most were still treated as second class citizens and expendable commodities. As late as 1975, Nusrat noted: “Women here (in Pakistan) are treated like pieces of furniture… we are human beings, and we should be heard”. Nusrat, therefore, joined the ranks of women like Fatima Jinnah and Raana Liaquat Ali Khan, strong emancipated women who inspired, and continue to inspire, generations of women to stand up for their equal rights. Her Persian charm, erudite conversation, fine sense of fashion and, above all, self-confidence, made Nusrat Bhutto a model for women in Pakistan to follow.
In the end, Nusrat Bhutto was simply a good person — a good wife, mother, grandmother, principled politician, an inspiring feminist and a tireless worker. Seldom do such qualities converge in a single person.
It was perhaps divine grace that Nusrat Bhutto retreated from the public eye in the late 1990s. The current state of Pakistan would have certainly broken her heart. With her death, the older generation of seasoned people and politicians has almost come to an end. We now have politicians who have no principles, no morals, no integrity and no sense of commitment. Even in her illness, Nusrat Bhutto was an example of courage for us; let us not forget what she and her daughter stood for.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2011.