On this day in 2007, Benazir Bhutto, a Pakistani politician who served as Prime Minister from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996, is assassinated. She was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation. A liberal and a secularist, she chaired or co-chaired the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) from the early 1980’s until her assassination.
Bhutto was born in Karachi to a politically astute, wealthy aristocratic family. Her father, the PPP’s founder and leader Zulfikar, was elected Prime Minister on a socialist platform in 1973. Meanwhile Bhutto studied and distinguished herself at Harvard and Oxford. Returning to Pakistan, her father was ousted in a 1977 military coup and executed.
Bhutto and her mother Nusrat took control of the PPP and led the country’s Movement for the Restoration of Democracy; in turn Bhutto was repeatedly imprisoned by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military government and then exiled to Britain in 1984. Returning with a more centrist message, Bhutto led the PPP to victory in 1988.
As Prime Minister, however, her attempts at reform were stifled by conservative and Islamist forces, including President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the powerful military. Her administration was accused of corruption and nepotism, and dismissed by Khan in 1990. Bhutto then led the loyal opposition against the conservative Islamic Democratic Alliance (IJI).
When the IJI government was brought down on corruption charges, Bhutto again led the PPP to victory. As Prime Minister anew, she oversaw economic privatization and attempts to advance women’s rights, but her government was again damaged by several controversies, including the assassination of her brother Murtaza, a failed 1995 coup d’état, and a further bribery scandal; the President again dismissed her government.
Exiling herself to Dubai, Bhutto sustained a corruption conviction from a Swiss court in 2003. Following US-brokered negotiations with President Pervez Musharraf, she returned to Pakistan yet again in 2007 to compete in the 2008 elections on a platform of civilian oversight of the military and opposition to growing Islamist violence. After a political rally in Rawalpindi, a man stood within 10 feet of her car, fired three gunshots at her, and detonated a suicide vest packed with ball bearings; she was pronounced clinically dead upon arrival.
The militant Islamist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, although the involvement of the Pakistani Taliban and rogue elements of the intelligence services were widely suspected. Bhutto was buried at her family mausoleum next to her father, and remains a hopeful but conflicted cipher in Pakistani history and a symbol of women’s rights throughout the world.