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Behind 'Pinkie' Bhutto's Passion for Politics

Messenger of Muslim Modernism

By Madhavi Sunder

To most of the world, Benazir Bhutto '73 is known as the prime minister of Pakistan and the first woman in modern history to lead a Muslim nation.

But to her friends from Harvard, she's just "Pinkie."

"It probably wasn't until [her] Commencement day that I knew her name was Benazir," says Alan E. Heimert '49, master of Eliot House, where Bhutto spent her undergraduate years. "She was always just Pinkie."

There are two stories behind Bhutto's nickname, recalls Peter W. Galbraith '73, a close friend of the prime minister and the son of Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith.

"The real story was she was a pink baby," says the younger Galbraith, explaining that the prime minister's rosy complexion earned her the sobriquet when she was born. "But occasionally she told people it was because of her leftist politics."

Bhutto came to Harvard at the early age of 16, during a time of political and social unrest throughout America. Students were marching in protest of the bloody war in Vietnam, and the women's movement was gaining unprecedented momentum. Watergate was undermining the integrity of the presidency. Young men walked around with hair down to the peace-symbol patches on the pockets of their jeans. Sexual norms were changing--during Bhutto's sophomore year at the University, Radcliffe and Harvard began housing men and women under the same roof.

In the midst of all this upheaval, the Muslim Benazir Bhutto made a home for herself within the ivy confines of Harvard. As the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto--then prime minister of Pakistan--Bhutto grew up as a member of one of the country's most prominent families. But at Harvard in 1969, few were familiar with the politics of South Asia, and Bhutto's new life of anonymity offered a welcome change.

"She loved being away from the limelight. She had come from a very prominent family, and what she liked about Harvard was she could lead a normal life," remembers Yolanda K. Henderson '74, who roomed with the future prime minister.

Fitting In

And Bhutto tried hard to delve into the informalities and novelties of American culture. In her autobiography Daughter of Destiny, she writes of her decision to adopt Western-style clothing--partly because the wardrobe of her homeland was not practical for Boston winters, and partly because it set her apart.

"I quickly shed the shalwar khameez and reemerged in jeans and sweatshirts from the Harvard Coop," Bhutto writes. "I let my hair grow long and straight and was flattered when my friends in Eliot Hall told me I looked like Joan Baez."

Friends say that Bhutto--who was social secretary of her freshperson dorm and a popular tour guide for the Crimson Key Society--adjusted well to the social and political life of the University, attending basketball and hockey games and joining in the anti-war protests of the day. "I can remember her playing a lot of Carly Simon," her former roommate adds.

Peter Galbraith agrees that the young Pakistani was very American, with a few exceptions.

"She didn't drink, and she didn't have boyfriends," he says, explaining that while assimilating remarkably well into American culture, the young Bhutto retained the self-discipline and customs of her Islamic heritage.

Messenger From the East

A concentrator in comparative government, Bhutto had a fondness for politics, especially for those of her homeland.

"She really tried to make the Harvard community aware of Pakistan--she was able to put it on the map," says Professor of Indo-Muslim Culture Annemarie Schimmel, whose lectures on Pakistan Bhutto often attended while at Radcliffe. "I told her father that she was a great messenger for the country--that she was doing more for Pakistan in that way than anyone could."

Friends of the prime minister also recall how she passionately defended her father's actions. During the civil war in Pakistan in the early 1970s, he was sharply criticized by the American press, and Benazir often confronted friends who disagreed with his policies.

"She had very strong opinions--what she reminded me of at the time was Julie Nixon, who defended her father in the midst of Watergate," recalls Henderson.

Daughter of Destiny

By all accounts, Bhutto's father was a strong influence on her. While still an undergraduate at Harvard, Bhutto accompanied the late prime minister on his official trips abroad. In 1972, her father introduced her to the late Indian Minister Indira Gandhi--it was a visit that whet Benazir's appetite for government.

"Pinkie was always interested in political issues, but going along with her father quite excited her," Henderson says. "Her real committment to Pakistani politics started during those Radcliffe years."

John Kenneth Galbraith, former ambassador to India and friend of the family says, "Her father regarded Benazir as his natural successor all along. She was a very sophisticated and intelligent undergraduate, and she has always shown great political skill."

But it was not until Bhutto left Harvard for graduate study at Oxford University that she really took on a leadership role. And as the first Muslim woman president of the Oxford Union--the University's prestigious debating society--she refined those political skills.

"She was a star even back then, and she loved politics--it was obviously in her blood," says Nicholas T. Mitropoulis, former assistant director of the Institute of Politics and a classmate of the prime minister at Oxford. "She was a great speaker--passionate, articuluate and charismatic...it was clear to me that she was destined to do great things," he adds.

As the young Bhutto was making a significant impression on her colleagues at Oxford, her father was facing powerful opposition at home. Only weeks after she graduated from the University, the elder Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup in 1977 by Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and was executed two years later.

Bhutto spent her five years after Oxford in and out of jail because of her outspoken criticism of Zia and his military regime. Even though she was placed under house arrsest in solitary confinement, she continued to organize the Pakistan People's Party to fight the military dictator's government.

Zia used the military to run Pakistan under strict Islamic laws, often oppressive to women and minorities, and he regularly denied political prisoners the right to a fair trial.

"She had to carry the banner at a very early age, and she has shown an extraordinary amount of courage," says Peter Galbraith, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, describing those years of endurance. "She was treated incredibly badly, yet she has retained a sense of balance--she's charming, she has a sense of humor, and she hasn't turned bitter."

'Enormous Risks'

Following Zia's sudden death in a plane crash last August, Bhutto began a cross-country campaign to gain the post of prime minister, promising to safeguard human rights, lift restrictions on the freedom of the press and improve the education and well-being of the country's poor.

Although pregnant, Bhutto campaigned to restore democracy. In a December election, she become the first democratically elected prime minister in the country in more than a decade.

"She is a woman who took enormous risks--she could have led a very leisurely life or followed a very pedestrian career," says Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and expert in Pakistani affairs. "Instead she chose a very difficult path, in a very difficult time, in a very difficult country."

In some of her first actions as prime minister, Bhutto freed political prisoners, removed constraints on the press and legalized the formation of unions. "You can see the opposition on television--you could never see that there before," Peter Galbraith says of the changes she engineered.

"She has only been in power for six months, after 11 years of military rule," Ispahani says. "There is a period of consolidation that must come before change--she must be given that chance to consolidate herself."

Her government thus far has been a fragile one, with serious opposition from a powerful army, from conservative religious groups who challenge her right as a woman to rule and from opposition political parties, which in recent months have grown in strength.

The furor over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses-which many say blasphemes the prophet Mohammed and which she eventually banned--has also helped destablized her regime. problem of Afghan refugees and an ensuing drug trade. And Bhutto has said she hopes to depend on U.S. help with these problems.

Muslim Modernist

Observers say her visit to the U.S. this week--after only six months as prime minister--presents an opportunity for the Muslim leader to present a less hostile image of Islam. Many say that with the recent death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the West can look forward to an era of good relations with Muslim leaders like Bhutto.

"Coming after more than a decade of Islamization and military rule, Ms. Bhutto may be Pakistan's last chance for Muslim moderation," Ispahani wrote in an editorial published in The New York Times last week. She says Bhutto's vision is one of an Islamic nation that is "compassionate and tolerant."

And in a speech to Congress yesterday. Bhutto said she anticipates close ties with the U.S. She also stressed her committment to avoiding a nuclear build-up between India and Pakistan, historic rivals.

"The opportunity is there," Peter Galbraith says. "I know that she is very interested in improved relations with India."

"Certainly this trip is very, very significant on a symbolic level--it is a triumph for Pakistani democracy," he adds. "The Democratic government in Pakistan today is not just a government in name, but a government in fact.

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