Fatima Bhutto’s Life Under the Sword

At Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, Pakistani author Fatima Bhutto, joined by journalist Anton Enus, is the eloquent, calm young face of a family whose history — like that of the nation with which it is deeply entangled — is marred by conflict and bloodshed.

Throughout her hour-long appearance Bhutto traverses the rocky terrain of her bloodline with a certain humility, eager to divert attention from the clan’s elite standing and redirect discussion to Pakistan: the challenges and opportunities it faces, and the ideas and practices that threaten it.

(Click to watch video.)

(Click to watch video.)

She traces the Bhuttos from feudal beginnings to state power and wealth, 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 that relationship is deeply complex, shaded by popular opinion, which in both countries is naturally suspicious of politicians. Bhutto herself is unconvinced by Pakistan’s denial that it knew of Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts. She recommends that any argument around the midnight capture-and-kill raid should take in the issue of a ‘hot pursuit’ agreement supposedly struck between the two states.

The conversation touches several times on Bhutto’s iconic aunt, 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.

These compromises include 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.

As the discussion continues, a complex picture of a young nation emerges. As with many fledgling states, Pakistan’s adolescence has seen bloody conflict, bitter feuding and intense power struggles. 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 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’. She adds, ‘The idea that this is Pakistan’s fate is unacceptable to Pakistanis.’

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