I’m on the far left in this photo, and you can barely see my friend Karen behind me. I don’t know who the woman in the middle was. Benazir Bhutto is, of course, on the right, reaching over to shake my hand.
I was lucky enough to be invited to this closed session at UALR in September 2002, along with nine other women from around the university. We each were allotted ten minutes or so for questions with Bhutto. Mine were primarily about the education of women in the Middle East. The woman to my right asked about the embezzlement charges that Bhutto would be tried for a couple of years later. The photo has lived in my study since the day I bought it from the newspaper reporter who shot it, and until now it’s mostly served as a momento of the first time I was invited anywhere because of my scholarship*. With Bhutto’s assassination yesterday, it is becoming something different.
She was an extraordinary, complicated woman. Having completed her education at Radcliffe and Oxford before going on to serve twice as prime minster of a Muslim country that experienced fluctuating levels of conservatism, she had a unique vantage point on issues surrounding the education of women. During our brief conversation, we talked about the practical problems of providing education in that cultural context and the interpretation of relevant Sharia law. The problems were both very simple and enormously complex: funding, building structures, getting the girls there, and keeping them from being punished or killed for gaining an education. The majority of families wanted their girls to go to school. The problems came from a radical minority that remains sizable enough to pose significant barriers.
Her assassination is certainly a blow to many women around the world. And it is indeed partly about conservative interpretations of Sharia and killing a woman who might rise to power for a third time, but that’s not all of it. It’s also about killing the most visible remnant of the Bhutto political dynasty and assigning her the same fate accorded her father and brothers decades ago. It’s about killing the most visible current proponent of democracy in Pakistan. It’s about killing a visible representation of Westerness. It’s about the whole messy, bloody, inscrutable knot of religion and politics and people who want their own vision for their country to come to pass. The clash between politics and religion is not so different from America, especially over the past decade. We like to think we wouldn’t be so violent, really, and maybe we’re not, except for when we come close.
I’m no expert on Pakistani politics and Benazir Bhutto was no saint. The pundits rumbling on about her government’s flaws and the many charges of corruption seem determined to focus on that. Certainly we should be remembering that, but we should also remember that hardly anyone is all good or all bad. As far as I could tell in the very short time we were in the same room together, Bhutto was a politician to her core. But she was also strong, blazingly intelligent, persuasive, and determined. With her background, she could have taken academic posts and remained safely ensconced in some western ivory tower or another. She knew she was being hunted. But she decided to live a different life and, further, to push for a different sort of life for the country she loved. There’s a lot to admire there.
*At that time, I still thought my primary area would be feminist or queer theory. I had just completed a series of papers and an independent study on rhetorical strategies employed by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is certainly not Pakistan, but it was close enough that my department tapped me to attend.
Update: The NYT has put up a slideshow and interview with Getty Images photographer John Moore, who photographed the rally, assassination, and bombing. It’s remarkable and brutal. (via Pascale’s Wager)