The political history of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has been one of relentless and unyielding struggle to restore democracy in Pakistan in the face of overwhelming resistance by the forces of tyranny and dictatorship.
Though this history is rich with the stories of strong and courageous individuals, any history of the PPP, or that of democracy in Pakistan more broadly, would be incomplete without recognizing the pivotal role played by Begum Nusrat Bhutto.
Begum Bhutto was not of the usual mould. She was a highly determined woman who refused to give up her mission to lead her nation towards democracy in spite of the brutal oppression suffered not only by her, her children and her larger family of the PPP, but, indeed, by all of Pakistan. She played a vital role in the empowerment of Pakistani women, both as first lady during the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Shaheed, and later as a senior member of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet.
Born Nusrat Ispahani, the young woman from an Iranian Pakistani family who grew to love her adopted country, rests today in the soil of Sindh.
Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s political role does not start with Ziaul Haq, but it was during his rule that her determination was forged of an unbreakable iron. With her eldest daughter, Benazir, Begum Bhutto fought fearlessly to save her husband, Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whose life was stolen by the most vicious military dictator in our nation’s history; a dictator who denounced democracy, abrogated the constitution, cynically toyed with religion, and denied the basic rights of the people.
Too strong to be easily intimidated, Begum Nusrat Bhutto was motivated by the depth of Zia’s tyranny, and she put her heart and soul into the fight for the restoration of democracy, the Constitution and basic human rights. She stood steadfast against a usurper and dictator not out of any desire for personal gain, but out of an unwavering dedication to her principles.
Many were intimidated by Gen Ziaul Haq and quickly acquiesced in his rule; but for Begum Nusrat Bhutto there was never a moment of doubt. The fundamental rights of the Pakistani people could not be sacrificed at the altar of dictatorship.
Dubbed “the Iron Lady of Pakistan”, Begum Bhutto was the backbone of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) – a coalition comprising PPP and other democratic political parties determined to restore the democratic order on which Pakistan was founded.
Today, Begum Nusrat Bhutto serves as a role model for Pakistan’s democratic political leaders.
For women, too, both in Pakistan and around the world, Begum Nusrat Bhutto is a role model.
We recall the time when many men surrendered before the threat of a dictator’s military strength. And we recall too that at this critical juncture in our nation’s history, it was a woman, Nusrat Bhutto, who refused to remain silent. We watched closely as she and her daughter, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, demonstrated a rare strength of character and dedication to principles.
Our hearts broke as these strong women courageously bore the pain of losing their husband and father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and their son and brother, Shahnawaz Bhutto, during Zia’s tyrannical rule.
Having already sacrificed more than any mother should be asked to, Begum Bhutto soon lost her elder son Mir Murtaza Bhutto as well, followed by the martyrdom of her daughter Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. She is survived by her daughter Sanam Bhutto and her grandchildren.
We must also remember that, prior to the government of Z A Bhutto Shaheed, women had very restricted rights in Pakistan. The Bhuttos helped change this by raising the status of women in Pakistan – progress that could not have been achieved without Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s exceptional interest in women’s empowerment.
Demanding recognition of the worth of women, Begum Bhutto once said, “Women here (in Pakistan) are treated like pieces of furniture…[but] we are human beings, and we should be heard.” She believed women should play a decisive role in the affairs of their country, helping to make Pakistan a stronger and more progressive state.
Begum Nusrat Bhutto proved to Pakistan’s women that a woman was capable of much more than what our society defines and teaches them, or perhaps even expects of them. She inspired and helped to guide Pakistan’s women out of the darkness of ignorance towards the light of emancipation.
As a mother she gave the nation brave and well-educated children who knew the virtues of sacrificing for principles and of giving a voice to the poor and oppressed.
With her husband and her children, she chose a life of sacrifice and discomfort over luxurious living so as not to betray her nation by bowing before tyrants and surrendering democracy. She watched with pride as her children led the nation in the fight for democracy, even sacrificing their lives for Pakistan and its people.
As a political role model, she not only kept the mission of Z. A. Bhutto Shaheed alive but also consolidated the PPP for the cause of democracy. As a woman, she set an example that a woman in Pakistan is not a piece of furniture, but can be a motivated champion of democracy and human rights.
Today, people from all over Pakistan, the region and the world honour her life and remember her services and sacrifices in the cause of democracy.
She has left behind orphans in the millions of Pakistanis who, from the far flung tribal area of Parachinar to the mountainous areas of Gilgit Baltistan and Skardu, to the seashore of Karachi, call her “Mother”. Her life serves as a guide for how to stand up for the principles of democracy and human rights.
Begum Nusrat Bhutto will always be remembered as the “Mother of Democracy” who taught us that when the cause of your country so demands, we must be willing to sacrifice wealth, comfort, and even our lives.
One of the most elegant women I have ever had the privilege to know, Begum Nusrat Bhutto was the embodiment of courage, beauty and grace.
May her soul rest in peace.
The writer is a Member of the National Assembly and Media Advisor to the Co-chairman PPP