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Memories of Harvard Give Bhutto Strength

Benazir Bhutto 1973

By Ali Ahsan

Locked in solitary confinement for opposing the military dictator who had her father killed, Benazir Bhutto ’73 found comfort in her memories of Harvard.

“I remember those long summer nights that never seemed to end when I was in Sukkur jail,” says the former prime minister of Pakistan.

“If I drifted off to sleep, I would somehow find myself back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’d be walking the Commons. I'd be in Harvard Yard, I'd be going to the little corner shop that sold magazines.”

“I think that was the way my subconscious was coping with surviving,” Bhutto says.

Her name means “without comparison,” and her life — from political prisoner, to youngest head of state in the world, to ousted leader — is a turbulent tale of courage and controversy.

Born into a life of wealth and privilege, very little could have prepared Benazir Bhutto ’73 for the path she would take soon after she graduated from Harvard.

But in her eyes, her Harvard experience was a formative one, solidifying her identity as a woman, a Muslim and a politician.

From Student to Stateswoman

After a stint at Oxford, where she became the first foreign woman to lead the Oxford Union, its most prestigious debate team, Bhutto returned to Pakistan intending to join the diplomatic service.

Within weeks of her return in 1977, however, her father, Pakistan's Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown in a military coup by General Zia ul-Haq, who had the senior Bhutto killed two years later.

It fell to Benazir Bhutto, then only 24, to lead the struggle against ul-Haq. She paid dearly for it, spending years in squalid prisons, often in solitary confinement, or under house arrest until she was forced into exile in London in 1984.

Returning to Pakistan after martial law was lifted in 1986, she led her party to victory in Pakistan's first democratic elections in more than a decade and became, at 35, the first woman in history to lead a Muslim state.

But her administration was wrought with controversy. In August 1990, the president of Pakistan dismissed her on charges of corruption and ineffectiveness, charges of which she was later acquitted.

Bhutto recaptured leadership in 1993, only to be ousted again by the president in 1996 — again on charges of corruption and misrule. The charges are now under investigation by the Pakistani government.

Meanwhile, Bhutto maintains her innocence, saying she is the victim of rival politicians' scheming for power. She leads the opposition party in the Pakistani Parliament and fights for the release of her imprisoned husband.

Looking back, Bhutto says her Harvard experience laid the democratic and feminist foundations that she drew on throughout, from prison to the primer minister's office.

Laying a Foundation

Bhutto, now 45, still fondly remembers Harvard as the place where she gained her first exposure to the wonders of a functioning democracy.

Calling Harvard “the very basis of my belief in democracy,” she says that coming to a land where there is freedom, where young students can criticize the president without being sent to prison, fueled her own belief in the democratic system.

According to Bhutto, that “determination to see freedom in my own country, to see rule of law, to see democratic institutions, was born in that period of great intellectual ferment at Harvard,” when the debates over the Vietnam War and the feminist movement raged across campus and throughout the nation.

During that time, she protested the Vietnam War and marched for Third World rights.

“Harvard became a seat of resistance against this unjust war. And yet there were others who were quite gungho about America going to war,” she recalls. “So there would be a lot of discussion--intense, deep [and] heated — on the subject of whether it was a just war or an unjust war.”

Grades, says Bhutto, were not everything. Frequently adopting social causes, like boycotting grapes and lettuce out of support for immigrant farmers, was more important in her social circle.

“Life meant not succeeding in exams, life meant developing oneself as a person,” she says.

Exams were not without their benefit, however. Bhutto says the “constant pressure” of tests, papers, and extracurricular activities strengthened her for the demands of political life.

“It gave me the capacity to endure pain, to endure setbacks which I don’t think I would have had I had not seen life as a series of steps for endurance in a microscope called a course at Harvard University,” she says.

Her Social Circle

Moving in a group of people where “most of us loved to read books on feminism, on the war [and to] argue about them,” Bhutto says she never developed a taste for the social scene of parties and discos.

Instead, she spent late nights discussing the virtues and flaws of democracy, feminism, and the state of the world.

A member of the Signet, a literary society, Bhutto says she would often find herself talking about figures like the Milford Sisters and Anais Nin with friends over milk and cookies.

Some of the conversations Bhutto had then seem eerily prescient in retrospect.

“All of us would sit there and say that today we are unknown, will a day arise when we too will make a contribution and people will recall us as they recall a group of people known as the Milford Sisters,” Bhutto says. “Will we as a group achieve such recognition?”

The daughter of the president of Pakistan (he was subsequently elected prime minister), Bhutto says she found at Harvard the anonymity she had always craved. The chance to be accepted for who she was--and not who her father was — proved delightfully liberating.

“People accepted me as Pinkie — not as Benazir, because at that time I was called Pinkie — and for the first time, I walked without the shadow of fame stalking me,” she says.

“I was accepted as any other young undergraduate,” Bhutto adds. “We’d go out to movies. Easy Rider had just come out with Peter Fonda, and it was a big hit. I'd take part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. We’d walk down the Commons and have ice cream. It was a great time.”

“It was a time of immense freedom, a time of immense privacy and a time when I was accepted for being me and not because I was the daughter of somebody, the mother of somebody, the sister of somebody.”

Politics and Friendship

In addition to creating fond Harvard memories, Bhutto says the friends she made at Harvard helped her deal with personal crises later in life.

Of her classmates, Bhutto remembers Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ’73 as someone she found herself relating to when her own father was killed in 1979.

“I was back in Pakistan when [Attorney General and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy '48] was assassinated [in 1968]. When I reached Eliot [House], I found out that Kathleen Kennedy was also one of the undergraduates, and my heart really went out to her.”

“I remember she had at the time a blue parka jacket that belonged to her father, and she would wear it often and keep it very close to her,” Bhutto says.

“My mind went back to her when I [later] lost my own father, and I wanted to keep the clothes he had on when he was executed close to me to feel in a way that I had some link to him.”

Coming to college in a foreign land at the age of 16, Bhutto recalls her impression of Americans as warm and accepting.

She says she “found America to be a very integrated society, prepared to accept, to integrate and to welcome.”

All the same, Bhutto was struck by the number of people who had heard of India but not Pakistan, a realization that led to heated arguments.

She would ask, “How can you come to this great University and not know that there was this great movement against colonialism that led to the birth of my country?”

Bhutto’s Muslim beliefs made her different as well. “Everyone would see this young lady going around saying ‘Is this bacon? Because I can't have it if it is?’” she recalls.

In politics, Bhutto diverged from her peers concerning China, which was the great bugbear of American politics at the time. Having met Chinese leaders like Chuen-Lai and Lu Sha Chi, Bhutto says she found herself at odds with many of her friends in her admiration for and understanding of the Chinese nation.

A Modern Young Lady

Coming from a conservative Muslim country, Harvard marked the first time Bhutto found women competing as equals with men.

She says she saw students, both men and women, making their own decisions and leading their own lives. In contrast, Bhutto says that although she came from a relatively Westernized background, all of her decisions were made for her by her parents.

Even the decision to come to Harvard rested not with Bhutto but ultimately with her father, Zulfiqar.

“[He] told me ‘I’m not sending you to California because the weather is too warm and you won’t study. Instead I’m going to send you to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there’s so much snow that you’ll have no alternative but to stay inside and work.’”

Even her undergraduate concentration required the parental seal of approval, Bhutto says. “When I was an undergraduate, I very much wanted to study psychology, but my father was very interested that I study government, so I studied government to please him.”

Later on, Bhutto would also mount a successful run for the campus-wide, popularly elected presidency of the Oxford Union, the university’s debate team, primarily to please her father, who wished to pass the political mantle on to his talented eldest child.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the example set by her parents, Bhutto plans to allow her children to make their own decisions about college.

“Of course, I’d love it if my children followed in my footsteps and went to Harvard,” she says. “But if they want to go to another university, I’ll let them do what they want. I learned at Harvard that it’s important to let young people make up their minds.”

Continuing the political strain, Bhutto also comped The Crimson, hoping to write for its editorial page.

But Crimson executives pressured Bhutto to write sports stories, as her House, Eliot, was the home of many of the College’s best athletes at the time.

She made all but the last of three cuts. Crimson editors told her she could be elected, but only if she would cover sports. It was an offer Bhutto refused.

Only half serious, Bhutto says, “My hopes of becoming a journalist were dashed when I was cut at the final comp.”

Shattering the Glass Ceiling

Her proudest accomplishment, Bhutto says, is her success as a woman in a man’s world.

“My greatest contribution lies in that my success as a woman in a Muslim society, where tradition and tribal taboos held sway, has emancipated other women,” she says.

“My success helped other women make choices that were not available to them before, not only in Pakistan but all over the Muslim world.”

This week, Bhutto will not be at her 25th reunion.

Instead, she will focus on her work, leading the opposition in Parliament during the crucial budget session in Pakistan. Despite her absence, Bhutto has a reunion message of victory to her friends and classmates.

“We did it, we broke through the glass ceiling,” Bhutto says proudly. “In those days, we wondered whether we could, but time showed we did. And now other women take for granted what women of our generation always wondered about.”

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