Saturday, November 15, 2008

She Was One Of Us: Benazir Bhutto 1953-2007

Benazir will always be remembered by friends and foes alike. In her tragic death she stands martyred in a way no one ever imagined. Whether one politically supported her or not, none can say they were untouched by her aura.

The first time I had the opportunity to meet Benazir Bhutto was at a dinner held in her honour at our home in Lahore. I was a child of nine, armed with a camera and an autograph book, eager to meet the princess, as it were. She was just Miss ‘Pinkie’ Bhutto back then, tall and svelte, youthful and majestic, with that undeniable aura of celebrity. Her hair was burgundy and layered; she was dressed in a cherry silk outfit designed by my sister with the puffed Dynasty-esque sleeves she favoured to wear for the rest of her life.I remember asking her naively when she would become prime minister and she had smiled. Two years later, she was elected the first woman to head our country. I sincerely hope she will not be the last.

Although she lived her life with the distinction that most women can only dream of, she nevertheless faced pressures similar to those the vast majority of Pakistani women do. Obliged to marry to pacify conservatives who did not approve of a single woman assuming office as an elected PM, she agreed to an arranged marriage (though she did get to retain her maiden name). The first in her family to shun the veil, she ended up adopting a dupatta prior to assuming her first term of premiership.Like regular Pakistani women, pregnancy and childbirth did not elude even the prime minister. She gave birth to three children. She was one of us, and yet she was a lot more.

Benazir was a publicity guru’s dream, with the power to command more global attention than her successors ever could, even in her death. Her father, with his legendary charisma, continues to be revered by a vast populace, even after 30 years of his death, for his sheer magnetism, a quality she inherited from him.We are a cynical nation let down repeatedly by our leaders, so we never forget our few and far between leaders who actually possess charisma. She towered above her male political rivals in stature – at 5’10”, plus heels, she was half-a-head taller than the nation’s average -- as well as with the sheer strength of her personality. While some of her competitors spoke timidly behind bulletproof glass kiosks at their rallies, she literally looked death straight in the face in her determination to pursue her campaign trail.

Her larger-than-life persona is the stuff that legends are made of: a lone Amazonian woman challenging a sea of men, their thinning hair dyed an unconvincing black, their expressions overtly smug, their voices barely discernible and their speeches uninspiring.Looking back at photographic montages of her early years, we are reminded of the same idealistic Benazir who, resplendent in green satin with crimson lip-gloss, pouffed hair (and, yes, those puffed sleeves), her complexion radiant with elation, took her oath for office for the first time while we watched with bated breath. It’s hard to believe that even she could die. Today, as she lies six feet under, her persona evokes a rare kind of glamour etched with underlying tragedy that only a very few personages can possess, Diana being one of them, that places her among world icons.

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