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The Making of a Prime Minister: Benazir ‘Pinkie’ Bhutto ’73 Remembered as ‘Great Messenger’ for Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto ’73, a two-time prime minister of Pakistan, called Harvard “the very basis of my belief in democracy.”
Benazir Bhutto ’73, a two-time prime minister of Pakistan, called Harvard “the very basis of my belief in democracy.” By Courtesy of Gerald B. Johnson
By Thomas J. Mete, Crimson Staff Writer

Before Benazir Bhutto ’73 broke the “glass ceiling” as the first democratically elected woman of a Muslim nation, she was a shy girl from Eliot House known to all as “Pinkie.”

“It probably wasn't until [her] Commencement Day that I knew her name was Benazir,” said then-Eliot House Faculty Dean Alan E. Heimert ’49.

Bhutto would go on to become a household name in international politics, serving as the Prime Minister of Pakistan twice and crediting Harvard as “the very basis of my belief in democracy,” according to a 1998 Crimson interview.

But in 1969, Bhutto arrived in Harvard Yard as a 16-year-old “normal undergraduate,” grabbing sweatshirts from the Coop, feeling homesick, and attending basketball and hockey games.

The former Eliot House resident, who originally lived in Cabot House, was an aspiring Psychology concentrator who had no intent to concentrate in politics or government. But Bhutto’s passion for Pakistan, where her father was Prime Minister, grew during her time at the College and she became “a great messenger for the country,” according to professor emerita Annemarie Schimmel.

After shifting to a concentration in Government, Bhutto wrote a thesis on the origins of Pakistan and graduated cum laude, said her friend Anne Fadiman ’74.

“Something got galvanized in her while she was at Harvard,” she said. “The longer she spent away, the stronger her focus on Pakistan became.”

Bhutto’s housemates recall her being “very pro-Pakistan,” and having “great political skill,” never hesitating to confront those who criticized her father’s actions during Pakistan’s civil war.

“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,” said her roommate Yolanda K. Kodrzycki ’74.

Two of Bhutto’s longtime friends — former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter W. Galbraith ’73 and Seattle lawyer Bruce E.H. Johnson ’72 — remember her growing role in Pakistani politics.

During breaks, Bhutto traveled with her father to the United Nations to debate Pakistan’s civil war before the Security Council and accompanied the late Prime Minister on official state trips to India and China, meeting Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong, according to Johnson.

“Her father regarded Benazir as his natural successor all along,” Galbraith said. “She was a very sophisticated and intelligent undergraduate, and she has always shown great political skill."

All those who crossed paths with Bhutto recalled her deep interest in Pakistan’s political landscape and saw her as a rising political “star even back then,” said Oxford classmate Nicholas T. Mitropoulos. But her close friends’ fondest memories were of her as Pinkie, a “great cake baker,” rather than as the daughter of Pakistan’s ruling elite.

“If any of our friends had a birthday she was there, having baked the cake,” Johnson said. “We would be in the small dining room just off the main dining at Eliot House.”

“I can remember her playing a lot of Carly Simon,” Henderson said.

After her time at Harvard, Bhutto’s political career began, but her path to becoming prime minister at 35 was plagued with obstacles. Upon her return to Pakistan, the military seized control, imprisoning and killing her father and arresting Bhutto multiple times, leading her to flee the country.

When free elections returned in 1988 following the sudden death of president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, she emerged victorious through a campaign focused on restoring democracy and human rights, all while pregnant.

“She is a woman who took enormous risks — she could have led a very leisurely life or followed a very pedestrian career,” said Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, a former fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Instead she chose a very difficult path, in a very difficult time, in a very difficult country.”

During her second term as prime minister, Bhutto was dismissed on charges of corruption and self-exiled from Pakistan. In 2007, she returned to the country in an attempt to win a third term as prime minister but was assassinated, spurring riots and political unrest across Pakistan.

“Benazir was certainly not a perfect political leader, but she sure was a brave one,” Fadiman said.

Fifty years after her graduation from Harvard, and 16 years following her death, her longtime friend Johnson still hopes Bhutto will one day be recognized by Eliot House for her achievements.

“I don’t know what kind of portraits that are on the walls of Eliot House these days. But if they are adding people of color, they ought to add Pinkie,” Johnson said.

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at thomas.mete@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjmete.

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