At the age of 14, Fatima Bhutto huddled in the corner of a closet shielding her baby brother while shots rang out in the streets outside her home. Those shots killed her father and continued the legacy of blood that marks her family and her country. Now, the Afghan-born Pakistani poet and writer speaks about a life lived in the shadow of political power and death.
Bhutto, the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and niece of Benazir Bhutto, studied at Columbia University and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. For the Wheeler Centre, Bhutto talks with SBS journalist Anton Enus about her remarkable memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, which is at once the story of a family, a search for answers about the death of her father and a portrait of an accomplished young woman who must decide her role in Pakistan’s future.
Throughout the conversation, Bhutto is dismissive of political dynasties - including the ‘strange’ comparison of her own clan to the Kennedy family. She’s wary of mythologies which bestow special, separate qualities upon members of a ruling class, particularly when those qualities translate to a sense that their mistakes are excusable.
She offers a brief history of the Bhuttos' journey from feudal power to wealthy and influential family, and constantly reassures the audience that her future lies outside of politics, emphasising that ‘the idea that somehow six letters of a last name saddle you with some kind of duty or responsibility is a disingenuous one’. She later adds: ‘We were never raised to think of the country as some sort of family business that we sort of entered into once we came of age’.
Her interpretation of her nation’s fraught relationship with the US proposes that Pakistan’s financial reliance on US aid affects the political establishment rather than the welfare of everyday Pakistanis. Elites enjoy the material benefits of a diplomatic alliance while America draws comfort from a regional ally in the war on terror.
Of course, the true nature of the relationship is deeply complex. Bhutto herself is unconvinced by Pakistan’s denial that it knew of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and insists the argument around the midnight capture-and-kill raid should take in the issue of a ‘hot pursuit’ agreement supposedly struck between the two states.
She asks: ‘Is Pakistan protecting its own back? Is Pakistan too frightened to admit that they assisted America in the operation because they fear reprisals from their own people? It certainly seems like it. And if America really does believe that Pakistan held back [information about Bin Laden], they’re going very soft on them.’
Much of the discussion returns to Bhutto’s infamous aunt and two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The younger Bhutto contests the prevalent international perception of Benazir as ‘feminist, liberal and democratic’. Instead, she describes her once-close relative — whom she formerly addressed by the nickname ‘Pinky’ — as a woman who made great compromises in her quest for power.
Bhutto spends some time talking about the Hudood Ordinance, introduced by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1979 as part of Pakistan’s Islamisation — laws which stripped women of many human rights, and which the allegedly feminist Benazir allowed to remain intact through two terms as Prime Minister.
In the course of the conversation, a complex picture of a young nation emerges. As with many fledgling states, Pakistan’s adolescence has been marred by bloody conflict. And while Bhutto offers her thoughts on Benazir’s relationship to the deaths of her brothers Shahnawaz and (Fatima’s father) Murtaza — and the slain leader’s seemingly extraordinary ability to turn her back on her own family — she remains remarkably nonchalant about her own safety, suggesting that her advocating justice over revenge is a protection from the same fate.
Fatima Bhutto’s apparent ease is disarming. She occupies a unique position — as a woman with ideological conviction, born into a family intimately linked with Pakistani politics, but also as an individual seeking a life away from politics. The idea of leaving Pakistan doesn’t tempt her. As she explains: ‘At the end of the day, Pakistan is home. And, you know, if we leave it, we know in whose hands we’re leaving it. And that’s an even more frightening scenario, I think, than staying in the country’. Bhutto concludes, ‘The idea that this is Pakistan’s fate is unacceptable to Pakistanis.’
'Millions of women suffer but they also struggle, they resist and fight. Pakistan is a harsh country, an unfair country, but it also produces women with extraordinary spirit.'
Fatima Bhutto was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and grew up in Syria and Pakistan. She is the author of six books of fiction and non-fiction. Her debut novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, was longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. Songs of Blood and Sword, the memoir she wrote about the life and assassination of her father, Murtaza Bhutto, was published to great acclaim. Her most recent book is New Kings of The World, a lively look at the forces that are challenging America’s cultural dominance of the world.