Open letter to Fatima Bhutto


Dear Fatima:

I looked forward to your articles over much of 2007. I read you with interest. My sense of you was of a serious and sincere young woman who had sensitivity and an openness that was engaging.

Unfortunately your very personalized and somewhat vicious attack on Benazir Bhutto a couple of months ago jolted me. You came through then as a bitter, betrayed and judgmental niece and not as a columnist (in my view newspaper columns are not meant to settle personal scores). I have no doubt that you are in pain and that you do feel betrayed but by forcibly drawing me into a personal pain you insulted and trampled on my integrity as a reader.

I don’t want to be a part of the internal pain and betrayals of the Bhutto family. My concern is only at the level of what the Bhutto’s were, are and will be in the public sphere since I am in no way associated with the Bhutto’s and nor in fact with the PPP. I respected Benazir Bhutto for a lot of things (while being only too critical of her failings) but I was particularly appreciative of the fact that she didn’t air her family linen in public even under extreme provocation. Nor I understand did she indulge in personal vendettas or bear too many grudges (in some cases I think she should have!). She was either very ‘politic’ or very magnanimous. Either way I felt better that she was not publicly vicious and that she kept her personal pain and betrayals to herself. I always felt that she dealt with me as a citizen and as a woman and in that gave me respect.

Given that I believe in due process and believe that a person is innocent until proved guilty (and that not be a fixed court as in the judgment against Z.A. Bhutto) I don’t like to indulge in hearsay, suspicion, speculation, innuendo or gossip. I am sorry that you (and others) force this upon me thereby challenging my integrity and my ability to think things through. I am not suggesting that I exonerate murder (not under any circumstances), nor corruption, but I do insist that this not be based on personal ‘truths’ or personal biases etc. Death, any death ‘diminishes’ me (and all of us) and while I feel for your pain and am appalled that Murtaza, a man of such promise should have been so ruthlessly gunned down, I do think that you should refrain from misusing your ‘power’ as a columnist (and as a Bhutto) to make unsubstantiated charges. I too would like to see those who cause death punished. But logic intervenes in my own understanding of Murtaza Bhutto’s murder and I am not able to point a finger at anyone. I will come back to this ‘logic’ later, for now I would like to explore another aspect of that same article that I refer to.

As a feminist I am appalled that you are so deriding of Benazir as a woman. Your article brought to the fore how ingrained sexism is so many of us and how easily even the ‘best’ of us who can obliterate a woman’s identity even when that woman has nurtured a self definition despite all odds and often at great pains to herself. By calling Benazir ‘Mrs. Zardari’ you insulted not just her but all of us women who have tried to carve out our identities within a rampant and sinister patriarchal structure. That you should so flippantly be a part of this makes me reconsider your politics regarding women’s equality and I begin to wonder where your identity will lie should you get married (will you cease to be a Bhutto? I hope not!) I would like to point out though that a majority of women in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world do not become ‘Mrs.’ or ‘Begum’ when they get married. This is common only in urban upper and middle class circles and is a heritage of colonialism. Fatima how many village women have you come across in Larkana who are called ‘Mrs.’? I don’t think the word exists in our languages. Nor should it…Further although I would and do stay away from theological references I understand that in Islam Muslims will be ‘called upon’ by their mothers’ name. This ideological and empirical ambivalence lend themselves to much confusion on the status of the natal family and parentage in terms of identity and recognition but I do think that it supports my position that the term ‘Mrs.’ is an aberration and actually irrelevant.

Benazir was a Bhutto regardless of how you and others may want to play it. She was a Bhutto by birth but also by conviction and by commitment just as I think you will always be if you were to continue to articulate whatever it is that Bhutto stands for (regardless of whom you marry). I am also very disturbed by the present prurient debate on parentage and spousal identification or on who can wear the Bhutto name triggered off by Benazir’s children adding Bhutto to theirs. As a feminist I am delighted by this and only wish that it had been done much earlier as several children have taken on both their parents’ names even in Pakistan. I understand that Benazir was intrigued that Abida Hussain’s son is named Abid Hussain Imam (using both his parents’ names) and thought that this was apt. I think so too and think that all children should be known as the children of both or neither. I am also delighted that by claiming their mother’s name and home and with her husband changing his residence (and his burial place I understand), these Bhutto’s are declaring to the world that their legitimacy at every level derives from their association with a woman. I think that this is fantastic given that women in the main get their identities from their fathers, husbands, sons and brother or even uncles etc. This is striking a blow to one of the foundations of patriarchy and even through Zardari and his and Benazir’s children may not have intended to make such a challenge, this is still an affirmation of matrilineal and matrilocal norms and is… well…feminist. That the people of Pakistan accept this makes me further interested and supportive.

I have found that I have been affirmed by the response of the people (and particularly the members and voters of the PPP) to a woman, a young woman leading them even though Bhutto had male heirs. Much is made of her being a child of the Bhuttos and therefore gaining respectability and a legacy above all others because she was a Bhutto. I do think that it is important however not to forget that she did have brothers and Murtaza Bhutto did come back to challenge her within the party and with the people. I am aware of the argument that she ‘stole’ the legacy of the PPP and even distorted it. Perhaps she did maneuver it but she could not have been successful then or later if the party had not gone along with her or if she had not been able to get out the vote. Like most people in this country I continue to be very pained by Murtaza Bhutto’s murder and do think that this tragedy is a tragedy shared by the nation. I remember when he returned and remembered his promise but I was very disturbed by his returning to ‘claim his inheritance as a male heir’ (I don’t know if he said this but I do remember it being an argument in the public when he returned with some newspapers quoting him to this effect). I am also enraged that a father should separate his daughter from her mother at the age of three (no matter what the reasons). No law, religion or system allows for this. I appreciate that now you may not be interested in your blood mother but who knows what your stand would have been had Murtaza facilitated your getting to know her at an early age. Too many skeletons in all our closets! And I am only sorry that you, by opening up a family drama, have propelled me to open up other wounds.

I marvel though at the sophistication of the people who voted for Benazir especially when there was another PPP (several others in fact) to vote for over the last 15 years or so. I think that this is not because she had a better manifesto (I haven’t seen the manifestos of the other PPP offshoots and hers may even have been more pedantic). As I understand it and as people who voted for her explained to me over the years, they had an affinity with Benazir…she was theirs. She had suffered with them and for them. Those years that she spent fighting for her father’s life and against General Zia Ul Haq, the stories of her solitary confinements; house arrests; her courage in the face of the martial law; her resilience and her commitment at a young age (without emotional and personal support) to a cause larger than herself is writ large in the hearts of people. It is for this same reason that others who were with the PPP are no longer of much relevance except as spoilers. I have always wondered where the companions of Bhutto (the ‘uncles’), and the second line leadership were in those years. Some jumped, others were silent, still others dragged their feet, some went off in a huff, some genuinely disagreed and some turned traitor. The names can be reeled off but I would still like to ask Mumtaz Bhutto, Peerzada, Mubashir, Jatoi etc.were (as also Atizaz Ahsan) what role they played, first with Bhutto’s struggles when he was in jail and then hanged, or later with Benazir’s (I don’t recall them making too much of a noise). How much of a role did they even play in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy? My memory may be faulty on this score but I don’t recall them putting their lives on the line. I don’t recall them suffering. Fortunately Benazir was supported by others with the same commitment as hers.

I appreciate that Murtaza and Shahnawaz Bhutto and many others were following their own form of resistance but however sincere (and I do believe in the sincerity) that adventurism led to countless deaths, prison sentences, torture, and disappearances not least perhaps the murder of Shahnawaz himself. A friend of mine spent ten years in jail tortured, often in solitary confinement, left without hope, on the grounds that the state suspected him of being a member of Al Zulfikar. He says sometimes he would get news of Bhutto’s sons, their marriages, their chidren, their time in Europe, and he would also get news of Benazir…in solitary or under house arrest. He says she spoke up for those in jail, that she sent messages or otherwise addressed them. They felt less alone with the very fact of her. This friend was released in 1989. He was still only 27 years old but defying logic, rationality, objectivity, intellectualism, he has supported Benazir since. However faded or ‘irrational’ he continued to dream.

This dream is the crux of peoples’ engagement with the Bhutto family. It is in giving voice to this dream that holds people to the PPP; it is this dream that makes for the resentment of the Bhuttos within the power structure and with the establishment (military or civil); it is this dream that makes those who support a Bhutto a threat to the status quo; and it is this dream that makes those who are the status quo insecure. So many people argue that Benazir (and for that matter Bhutto) did very little for those who supported them. Those who had something to lose if the Bhutto’s had challenged the structures of society, say this with comfort and with glee. This is understandable. But the detractors, the middle class, urban progressives, intellectuals, academicians, ‘left’ activists and ‘left’ pretenders who add to this ‘they didn’t do anything’ refrain are to my mind either unable to understand liberal bourgeois democracy or are unable to see reform for what is it…a slow, laborious, tedious, and frustrating process that I myself am impatient with. Yet I don’t expect mainstream politicians to bring revolutions. I only expect the more progressive among them not to reverse whatever progress might have been made and to push the parameters. The Bhuttos did what I thought they could do. In any case I am not nor have ever been a member of the PPP and as a socialist and feminist always criticized and challenged the Bhutto’s from the left. I have not allowed this criticism however to negate what they did do and in some cases this would be substantial even if some of it cannot be quantified. But at the very least it was that they articulated a humanity that touched their supporters. This I salute, legacy or not. I am reminded of one of the most poignant songs that have come out of the women’s movement called Bread and Roses “…yes it is for bread we fight for but we fight for roses too…” It was the roses Fatima, the roses… perhaps it still is…(as also the bread).

In the 60 years of Pakistan a Bhutto has only been in power for about 10 and yet this name looms large both for supporters and detractors. I wonder at this especially for the latter. Why does the focus always stay on the Bhuttos (as opposed to all other politicians and even the military governments?) Why are Benazir’s all too brief terms in office still under the microscope; why are all her wrongs always in the public discourse (urban discourse in the main); why does she bring on such fury…? Further why does the murder of Murtaza figure more than the suspicion of murder of Shahnawaz? Why is there no ‘objective’ thinking through of Benazir’s involvement (or lack of) in the murder of her brother Murtaza? I have been troubled by this last since 1996 not because I think that she could not have done it (after all murders, betrayals, ambitions, kidnappings, taking children away from a parent usually a mother, etc. are fairly common in ‘royal’, feudal and patriarchal families) but I am perplexed about the whole process of such a judgment. I am for instance baffled by the fact that Leghari, Sharif and Musharaf didn’t conduct inquiries that would have proved this. Surely then they could have hanged her and/or Asif? Or at the very least could have preventing them from ever returning to Pakistan. Leghari dismissed Benazir’s government soon after Murtaza’s murder. The interim government was meant to look into her misdeeds as were the governments of Sharif and Musharaf. Why did they not convict her for this crime (or even Asif who spent time in jail for this and other charges). I have always maintained and still do that the murderers could not be exposed…perhaps because they continue to be powerful elements in the establishment.

I wonder too about populism. It can be a very creative force but it can also be dangerous. To me what is important is to understand what it is that touches people to the extent that they think that these families or individuals can determine the course of history. What do the Bhuttos, the Gandhi’s, the Perons, the Kennedys etc. have in common other than youth, tragedy and well…good looks!? What does political stardom mean? Why do people need to create larger than life characters and yet still be accessible enough to mirror the anguish of a people?

While the larger problematic of populism intrigues me it is perhaps in order for me to focus on the Bhuttos and try to understand populism in our own context. I don’t think that the Bhutto ‘legacy’ has only to do with one’s association to a family. We have only too many politicians here who are associated with a particular family and this in itself does not play out as populism. I have tried to understand this both as an activist and an academic and continue to grapple with it. But I accept it as phenomenon and only hope that those who are heirs to this populism can steer this in a manner that is in the best interests of those who place such faith in them.

You and your step mother, Ghinwa Bhutto, argue that the name Bhutto should not determine political success and nor should it give privilege. I agree but then do wonder why Ghinwa Bhutto leads her faction of the PPP as Murtaza’s widow and wonder also why she has continued to head it. Is it not her husband’s name that she exploits and is the Bhutto ‘legacy’ not being used here? And you Fatima, is the media, and political, and social circles not focusing on you only because you are a Bhutto? Surely every young Pakistani professional woman is not being interviewed by the London Times and the Guardian etc.? Or being feted and read here and abroad (not even older women who may have made significant contributions to Pakistan let alone ‘ordinary’ women get this type of celebrity status no matter how much they may deserve it)? Do you not also play the Bhutto card every time you accept or court celebrity status? Do you not already have an edge that you have not worked for and you will not continue to have this edge even if you do decide to just work ‘with the grass roots’ and continue your writing?

Actually I have no problems with this. I only have problems with your saying that you don’t. You are an ‘heir’ to the Bhutto legacy, a legacy shared by all the grandchildren of Nusrat and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. These grandchildren would include to my mind the children of Sanam and Shahnawaz Bhutto (every one seems to have forgotten them!). I hope that all of you can reach out to each other in the interests of those who ‘need’ a Bhutto and can take this legacy and this history forward together. All of you even those of you who do not want to get directly involved at the moment, have a role to play if for no other reason than to keep the PPP together as a national multi-ethnic, multi-class trans-gender, trans-religious, liberal, progressive and I hope, secular party that reflects the interests of all the provinces and areas of Pakistan. As the family ‘elder’ your role and responsibility is perhaps more cut out since I think it is for you to reach out to all of them (including Shahnawaz’s daughter Sassi Bhutto). I also think that all the Bhutto grandchildren should have to earn the respect and the love of the people who support them. The Bhutto myth lies to a large extent in that they worked and suffered for those who supported them…enough for them to risk their own lives…and lose. I would hate for the Bhutto ‘legacy’ to now be handed on a platter to Bilawal, to you or to any other grandchild without him or her having earned it. Earning it is a long and potentially dangerous struggle even if you decide to work only at a local level. None of you however are ‘too young’ as is being suggested. Benazir Bhutto was about your age when she took on her monumental task and Bilawal is not much younger than her, Murtaza or Shahnawaz were when circumstances forced the Bhutto mantel onto them.

I wish you a life of commitment, energy and courage…


Nighat Said Khan

This is the article by Fatima Bhutto where she calls her aunt Mrs. Zardari.

And here is the obituary she wrote for her aunt.