Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country

For the first time since the seventh century c.e., when the Prophet Muḥammad founded Islam, a woman was elected to be the legal and formal head of government in a predominantly Muslim country.

Summary of Event

Pakistan is a very new country, having been created in 1947 as a result of the partition of the British Indian Empire. The movement to establish the country, which began in the late nineteenth century, was predicated on the demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. Accordingly, Islam was from the beginning a decisive force in the development of Pakistan’s political institutions and practices. Islam was not the only factor shaping Pakistan’s politics, however; another significant influence was the legacy of Western civilization implanted over two centuries of rule by the British. Women;politicians
Prime ministers;Pakistan
[kw]Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country (Nov., 1988)
[kw]First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country, Bhutto Becomes the (Nov., 1988)
[kw]Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country, Bhutto Becomes the First (Nov., 1988)
[kw]Muslim Country, Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a (Nov., 1988)
Prime ministers;Pakistan
[g]South Asia;Nov., 1988: Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country[06990]
[g]Pakistan;Nov., 1988: Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country[06990]
[c]Government and politics;Nov., 1988: Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country[06990]
[c]Women’s issues;Nov., 1988: Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country[06990]
Bhutto, Benazir
Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali
Zia-ul-Haq, Mohammad
Khan, Ghulam Ishaq
Bhutto, Nusrat

Pakistan was thus confronted with two powerful forces that were not always in harmony. On one side, Islam imparted a strong spiritual foundation to the way people thought, interacted with each other, and were to be treated in the larger social and political contexts. In juxtaposition to this were the Western traditions of, among other things, secularism and democratic decision making.

In Islam, the totality of life is encompassed by spiritual commitment. Governments in Islamic countries may draw distinctions between religion and the law of the state, but to the Muslim, such distinctions have little significance. In Islamic societies, people are more likely to be guided by duty and obligation, as determined by religious forces, than by the pursuit or exercise of rights. In relations between men and women, for example, women can expect protection, an obligation of men rather than a right of women.

The British political legacy in Pakistan included, among other things, the notion that as far as political influence is concerned, all people are more or less equal. Basic political decisions should be made by a broadly representative body. The legal system should be neutral and dispassionate, with a goal of equal justice for all. Individuals enjoy fundamental rights that should be vigorously protected against abuse by government.

Efforts to wed the system of Islamic philosophical and spiritual requirements to the practical political and institutional experiences of the British period proved very frustrating for Pakistan. Martial law was imposed first in 1958 and then again in 1969, in both cases after the failure of constitutional government. Martial law;Pakistan The greatest catastrophe occurred in 1971, when the country was dismembered by the secession of its eastern portion, which became Bangladesh. Martial law was imposed for a third time during this period.

A new government and a new constitution emerged out of this bitter experience and held out the promise of a more open and democratic political environment for Pakistanis. After some initial success in popularizing government, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party Pakistan People’s Party[Pakistan Peoples Party] (PPP) began to experience substantial opposition, especially from conservative political interests representing the traditional landed aristocracy and the ulema, or Islamic clergy. Bhutto attempted to neutralize opposition through such measures as prohibition of alcoholic beverages and closing of nightclubs.

This was not enough. In 1977, Bhutto’s elected government was dismissed by the military on the grounds that political instability in the country required temporary establishment of martial law. The commander of the army and chief martial law administrator, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, promised that elections would be held on schedule or soon thereafter and that civilian rule would be restored. Ten years later, this had still not come to pass. People with large landholdings or financial resources thrived during this period, but others fared less well. The working class and professionals, such as lawyers and physicians, were particularly disenchanted with military rule.

Benazir Bhutto (right), with her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in Islamabad.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

There was more to the situation than Zia’s concern for maintaining political order, however. Zia had his own agenda, which called for the Islamization of virtually every aspect of Pakistani society. An immediate worry for the general and his associates was the probability that an election would return Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to power. Bhutto’s PPP was the most popular and influential political party in the country. Zia had Bhutto executed, but even afterward Bhutto remained a powerful political force, as in death he became a martyr and a symbol of antigovernment sentiment.

After Bhutto’s death, the leadership of the PPP fell, nominally at least, to his widow, Nusrat Bhutto. She was, however, in poor health and not politically skilled. The dominant role in party affairs, therefore, was played by Benazir Bhutto, Zulfikar’s daughter. Zulfikar Bhutto did have sons, but they had opted for violent action against the government and so were prevented from participating directly in the political process. During the decade-long period of martial law, the PPP and all opposition groups and politicians were harassed and persecuted by the military government. Many opposition leaders spent considerable time in jail or under house arrest, including Benazir Bhutto.

Resistance to the military rule of General Zia continued to manifest itself in various ways. Several opposition parties banded together in the mid-1980’s to form the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (Pakistan) (MRD). The composition of the MRD reflected a wide spectrum of political opinion, ranging from conservative religious organizations to parties advocating socialism. It was held together by hostility toward Zia and his government. Under the leadership of Benazir Bhutto and the PPP, open and direct opposition to Zia often took the form of public demonstrations, sometimes of a fairly violent nature. The efforts of the MRD, however, were not successful in forcing changes in government policy or in effecting the removal of General Zia.

By 1988, the confrontation between the political opposition and the government of General Zia had reached a stalemate. Pakistan was faced with political gridlock. Zia’s Islamization program was going nowhere, his efforts to promote political change were manifestly self-serving, and the political opposition was becoming more frustrated and restive. The situation was changed on August 17, 1988, when a plane crash took the lives of General Zia, the American ambassador to Pakistan, and several American and Pakistani generals.

Following the accident, the machinery of government moved with surprising dispatch. The president of the senate, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, was next in line of authority. He appointed Benazir Bhutto, as the leader of the country’s largest political force, as acting head of government. Elections held in November confirmed Bhutto and the PPP, making Benazir Bhutto not only one of the few women heads of government, elected or otherwise, but the first ever chosen by popular election in a Muslim country.

Bhutto’s tenure in office was stormy from the beginning. The coalition involved in the opposition movement against the Zia government disintegrated. Many former allies of the PPP began vigorously opposing the party, and the opposition enjoyed considerable success in frustrating Bhutto’s efforts. Governments in the provinces of Punjab, Baluchistan, and North-West Frontier showed an independence of mind, refusing to take directions from the central government. Those on the political right, as allies of General Zia and supporters of his Islamization program, refused to accept the idea of a woman running the political affairs of the country. In addition, Benazir Bhutto was embarrassed by the behavior of her husband, who seemed indifferent to public opinion. Her government was also handicapped by its own ineptitude: It was never able to come up with a legislative agenda and enacted no important legislation.

Serious problems of civil disorder and violence continued to occur, especially in the major port city of Karachi, which suggested to those unsympathetic to the government that, once again, the country was out of control. In the end, Bhutto was brought down by the same man, Ishaq Khan, who had installed her as head of government. As president, replacing Zia, Ishaq Khan announced that Bhutto’s government had demonstrated it was incapable of governing. Bhutto was formally removed from office by order of the president on August 6, 1990. Ishaq Khan then asked opposition parties to form an interim government until new elections could be held. Elections were held on October 24, 1990, and the PPP suffered a serious defeat. Relegated to opposition status, with political power in the hands of their enemies, Bhutto and the PPP found themselves facing charges of corruption and misuse of office.

Pakistan’s democratic political system continued until the October, 1999, coup that overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sharif, Nawaz who succeeded Bhutto and held office until 1993 and then again from 1997 to 1999, until his removal by army chief of staff Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, Pervez

Bhutto served as Pakistan’s prime minister again from October, 1993, to November, 1996, when she was removed from office once more amid charges of corruption. In 1998, she left Pakistan to live in Dubai, but she remained involved with the PPP. After nine years in self-imposed exile, Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October, 2007, to seek office in upcoming elections, but this effort was ended by her assassination on December 27, 2007.


Bhutto’s removal from office in 1990 was endorsed by popular vote, so there was no sense that there had been a violation of the public trust. Those unsympathetic to the Bhutto family and the PPP, finding themselves in power, issued calls for investigations into official corruption during the previous government. Bhutto’s husband was jailed briefly, but Bhutto, and most PPP officials, avoided persecution and continued to be politically active. The spirit of Islamization was as strong as ever, however, and the new government under Nawaz Sharif announced the establishment of sharia, Sharia or Islamic law, as the highest law of the land.

The elevation of Benazir Bhutto to the prime ministership of Pakistan was an important milestone in the evolution of the political rights of women, but the substantive significance of this event should not be exaggerated. Bhutto’s election did not indicate a significant change in the pattern of male-dominated politics or a dramatic improvement in the lot of women in Pakistan in particular or the Muslim world in general. Bhutto came to office because of her link to her martyred and highly popular father and the sudden (and fortuitous) death of General Zia.

Benazir Bhutto’s experience fits a pattern found in other South Asian countries. On several occasions women have occupied high political office, but in each case they have inherited political leadership roles from their fathers or husbands. The first and most significant was Indira Gandhi, Gandhi, Indira who benefited from the fact that her father was Jawaharlal Nehru, Nehru, Jawaharlal the towering figure in Indian politics following independence in 1947. In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the women who were chosen to lead their governments were in both instances wives of former government leaders. Bangladesh became the second Muslim country with a woman leader.

During Bhutto’s brief tenure in office, her government did little to reverse the pattern of arbitrary political authority that has characterized Pakistan since its inception. Human rights conditions in a broad sense were better because the military, at least until the 1999 bloodless coup, withdrew from active governance. For a brief period, the fact that a woman occupied the prime minister’s chair, a woman whose own politics reflected a liberal cast of mind, resulted in an environment in which authoritarian and religious fundamentalist values were less in evidence. Women;politicians
Prime ministers;Pakistan

Further Reading

  • Burki, Shahid Javed. Pakistan: Fifty Years of Nationhood. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Provides a comprehensive account of the development of Pakistan, including events that took place while Benazir Bhutto was in office.
  • _______. “Pakistan Under Zia, 1977-1988.” Asian Survey 28 (October, 1988): 1082-1100. Presents a favorable assessment of Zia’s impact on the political and economic development of Pakistan.
  • Hayes, Louis D. “From Confrontation to Accommodation.” Asian Thought and Society 15 (October, 1990): 298-308. Discusses the period of political development in Pakistan after the departure of General Zia, which was marked by greater institutional effectiveness than had generally been the case in the past. Suggests that this was a result of a maturing of the political process and concludes that the failure of the Benazir Bhutto government does not suggest a reversion to type.
  • _______. “Islamization and Education in Pakistan.” Asia Pacific Community 27 (Winter, 1984): 96-105. Provides detailed description and evaluation of Zia’s Islamization reforms and their impacts on education. Makes specific reference to the consequences of these reforms for women’s education.
  • _______. The Struggle for Legitimacy in Pakistan. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Presents a general survey of Pakistan’s efforts to establish political institutions that are accepted as legitimate by politicians and citizens alike.
  • Talbot, Ian. Pakistan: A Modern History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Discusses the problems that have besieged Pakistan since 1947 and examines the political careers of Zia, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto. Includes glossary, selected bibliography, and index.
  • Weiss, Anita M. “Benazir Bhutto and the Future of Women in Pakistan.” Asian Survey 30 (May, 1990): 433-445. Evaluates Bhutto’s efforts to enhance the status of women by relaxing some of the restrictions imposed by Zia and by strengthening government programs for women. Written while Bhutto was still in office.
  • _______. “Women’s Position in Pakistan: Sociocultural Effects of Islamization.” Asian Survey 25 (August, 1985): 863-880. Assesses the impacts of the government’s programs to change Pakistan’s institutions to make them conform to Islam. Asserts that these efforts were the result of a combination of factors: a response to traditional political forces, an effort to sustain a feudal economy, and government’s ignorance of women’s role in society.

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