Begum Nusrat Bhutto: First Lady of Pakistan who fought to keep her family together


Begum Nusrat Bhutto was the wife of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan between 1973 and 1977. She suffered not only his loss, when he was hanged in April 1979 by General Zia ul Haq, but the early deaths of both her sons and of her daughter Benazir, leaving only one child, a daughter, to survive her. The beautiful Iranian-born matriarch became a focus for Bhutto's supporters during his trial and after, and petitioned the country's Supreme Court against the imposition of martial law, but lived to see her children and grandchildren bitterly divided.

Her suffering is recorded in a photograph of her injured face moments after Zia's police beat her with lathis (long heavy sticks) during the uproar at a Test match at Lahore's Gaddafi stadium held during the trial on 16 December 1977, when spectators cried: "Long live Bhutto!". The head injury required 12 stitches and she was arrested in her hospital bed. During the house confinement under which she was held for most of the 21 months of the trial, she consoled herself by cooking food for her husband and playing patience. She was greeted with rapture when during a brief release she appeared at the hearings.

At the end of his four-day final statement on appeal, Bhutto, thin, drawn and in ill-health, presented her with a rose. Their farewell was conducted in Rawalpindi District Jail, where she had to reach across a table placed in front of the bars of the death cell to touch his hand. She was not allowed to kiss or hug him. Having been told he would be hanged at dawn, she woke at 4.30am to find he had been executed two and a half hours before and the body removed. She was not allowed to attend his interment at the Bhutto family grave.

The conviction and sentence, on a revived charge of conspiracy to murder of which Bhutto had already been exonerated, were widely considered both in the West and the Islamic world to be judicial murder. Begum Bhutto's challenge to the legality of Martial Law Order 12 of 1977 brought a judgment in the Pakistan Supreme Court which held it to be covered by the law of necessity. The military government promised elections within 90 days, but years were to pass before Pakistanis would be allowed to vote again. Begum Bhutto was prominent in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, which was formed in 1981.

In July 1985 her son Shahnawaz was found dead at the age of 27 in a flat in Nice. He and his brother Murtaza were said to have been given poison phials to take if appreh-ended, but the death remains unexplained.

Shahnawaz and Murtaza had been living in Kabul, and Zia's government is said to have insinuated that a resistance group called Al-Zulfikar, responsible for the hijack of a Pakistani airliner in 1981 and the shooting of a passenger, was linked to the PPP. General Zia was killed in an air crash on 17 August 1988, and the PPP returned to power after a general election in which it won 94 of 207 seats, with Benazir as Prime Minister until 1990 and from 1993-96.

Begum Bhutto, who was PPP chairman from 1979-1983, was elected Assembly Member for Larkana in 1988, and after the interlude of the Islamic Democratic Alliance government, represented the same seat from 1993-96. Though Benazir had asked Begum Bhutto and an aunt to arrange a marriage for her, and in 1987 married Asif Ali Zardari, mother and daughter grew apart, and in 1993 Begum Bhutto was ousted from her long-standing position as co-chairperson of the PPP.

Further anguish awaited when in 1996 her elder son Murtaza was gunned down in Karachi. According to her granddaughter, Murtaza's daughter Fatima, in her book dedicated to Nusrat, Songs of Blood and Sword (2010), "she never recovered. The day after the burial she walked up and down... calling her son: 'Tell Mir he should change his burial shroud, it's full of blood."

Though Begum Bhutto was elected to the National Assembly again in 1997, the first signs of Alzheimer's Disease were affecting her, and she left for Dubai. According to Fatima she was swept away by Benazir and kept from returning to Pakistan or seeing Murtaza's family. Her declining condition is said to have spared her the further sorrow of knowing of Benazir's assassination in 2007.

Nusrat Ispahani came from a cosmopolitan Iranian business family which settled in Bombay before moving to Karachi. There Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saw the tall beauty with dark auburn hair at a wedding and fell in love with her. Though already married at 13 to Begum Amir, a cousin 10 years older than he was, Bhutto overcame his mother's opposition and the difference between his family's Sunni faith and Nusrat's Shia one to take her as his second wife.

From going about in public without a veil, driving cars, and being an officer in the paramilitary women's force, the National Guard, Nusrat entered purdah with the other women of the feudal landowning Bhutto family, going out to visit her family once a week.

In the early years of their marriage Bhutto practised as a barrister before entering the government of General Ayub Khan. He resigned as foreign minister in opposition to the capitulation to India after the 1965 war over Kashmir and founded the PPP, which won the 1970 election. After the secession of East Pakistan as Bangladesh Nusrat was First Lady of a truncated Pakistan in which Bhutto became President and chief martial law administrator. In 1973 a new constitution reduced the Presidency to a ceremonial role and Bhutto became Prime Minister.

Nusrat Ispahani, politician: born Isfahan, Iran 23 March 1929; married 1951 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (died 1979; one daughter, and one daughter deceased, two sons deceased); died Dubai 23 October 2011.

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