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REVIEW: Benazir Bhutto by Anna Suvorova

June 28, 2015


Benazir Bhutto: A Multidimensional Portrait

By Anna Suvorova
Benazir Bhutto: A Multidimensional Portrait By Anna Suvorova
Benazir Bhutto 

-- AFP
Benazir Bhutto -- AFP

ORIGINALLY published by Vostochnaya Literatura in 2013, Russian scholar Anna Suvorova’s anthropological analysis of Benazir Bhutto was re-published this year with an English translation by Pakistan’s branch of the Oxford University Press. Early on in the book the writer claims that she did not know the late prime minister personally and hence did not plan a traditional, historical biography of her. Suvorova’s study examines some articles and writings both on and by Benazir, in order to provide us with a sense of this remarkably complex female leader as evinced through what Suvorova posits is a primarily intellectual lens. At four and a half pages, the bibliography, though not thorough, is adequate; the writer places citations at the end of each chapter, but there are no substantial supporting endnotes or footnotes to the text.

The conceptual framework of the book is an interesting one; readers should be aware that the actual commentary on Benazir’s life does not begin until almost a third of the way into the text. The first third deals with disparate topics, such as a rapid (though accurate) history of the Bhutto family and its antecedents, and a feminist perspective on the horrific sociological problems of karo kari and acid attacks in Pakistan. The public dishonouring of Mukhtar Mai within the precincts of her village is also described at length. Suvorova’s main aim appears to be to create a long human rights run-up to the wicket whereby she underscores the plight of women in Pakistan in general, and the challenges any female leader in particular would have faced when running the country.

Particular attention is paid to Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar-winning film Saving Face, and the writer draws our attention to the valid point that while upper-class, influential Pakistani women can effect some changes in the socio-political landscape, many are themselves “not secure from domestic violence, harassment by obscurantists, or attacks by extremists”. Indeed, the recent murder of spirited activist Sabeen Mahmud gives further credence to Suvorova’s point. The author comments extensively on ‘honour’ killings in Pakistan, indicating that a country prone to such ancient modes of retribution would naturally be a major challenge for any modern-minded politician. According to Suvorova, Benazir often found herself having to delicately negotiate between her position as an Islamic leader on one hand, and a democratic ruler on the other, though the author is careful to note that Bhutto never regarded or specifically defined herself as a true feminist.

Benazir’s early life in feudal Sindh and Karachi, years at Radcliffe and Oxford, her stint as president of the Oxford Union, a prestigious debating society, and her personal friendships with individuals from the West such as Peter W. Galbraith and Victoria Schofield are mentioned in the central portion of the book. Schofield provides an elegantly written foreword for this text reminiscing on her friendship with Benazir dating from their Oxford days. Suvorova herself can be excused a certain brusque choppiness of writing style since the book was translated into English by Daniel Dynin. Less excusable are the somewhat reductive labels she deliberately pastes onto the characters of her panorama: Raza Khan Kasuri, whose case against Zulfiqar Bhutto cost the latter his life, is termed “eccentric”; Shahnawaz, Benazir’s younger brother, is dubbed a “loafer”, and Fatima, Mir Ghulam Murtaza’s daughter, is repeatedly referred to as being envious of her aunt. That the Bhuttos, like any other family, are prone to problems, strife, and disagreements, should come as no surprise to many.

Later in the text Suvorova adds an interesting chapter specifically on the psychological dynamics of sibling rivalry, delineating how Benazir, being the oldest child, was naturally authoritative as indeed was Murtaza, since he was the oldest son. Suvorova’s personal sympathies clearly lie with Benazir, whom she praises for suffering stoically in Pakistani jails while her brothers were involved in terrorism, hijackings, and living the high life at the expense of friendly Arab rulers. However, the writer cannot be faulted for being too polemical, since she faithfully notes how Murtaza reformed a few years before he was killed, and approached his political duties with a sobriety and seriousness that did him credit. He remained tough to the very end; one is impressed by Suvorova’s account of how he restrained his own bodyguards from firing on anyone that fatal evening in September 1996, and ended up taking several bullets in a violent police shoot-out that was as mysterious as it was harrowing.

One of Suvorova’s more intriguing chapters ‘The Clash of Civilisations’ focuses on the theories of political scientist Samuel Huntington who notably examined the polemical disparities between civilised Western powers and ‘the rest of the world’ including predominantly Islamic regimes. Suvorova claims that Benazir, who was familiar with Huntington’s thesis, was a highly educated and deeply intellectual woman who reflected regularly on her political responsibility towards her Islamic nation, contrasting it with the way she was regarded as the darling of the West (especially Western media). Suvorova also often notes that Benazir was a naturally maternal figure who successfully espoused some noble causes such as the eradication of polio, going as far as to have her own daughter Aseefa filmed by the media when the child was given polio vaccination drops.

Dry details of Benazir’s career can be easily obtained by anyone; where Suvorova goes beyond other writers is in attempting to provide a holistic look at those aspects of the late prime minister’s life that were in keeping with her unique personality, and with her role as a scion of a major political dynasty who possessed both intelligence and warmth as well as a sense of arrogance and entitlement. The interdisciplinary diversity whereby the writer incorporates psychology, history, and political science into her work gives the book a variegated quasi-academic touch that is not displeasing in aggregate. What is far more disturbing is that although it has been published by a major university press, the book is lacking in serious depth and timbre. Very few portions of it are well researched or intellectually nuanced, and while this makes for smooth and easy reading, the utter absence of thorough documentation in the form of substantial sources and corroborative footnotes makes the text woefully inadequate from an academic perspective. Suvorova relies far too frequently on the commentaries of writer Tariq Ali, so much so that it begins to grate even on a patient reader’s nerves after a while. Sources such as novelist-journalist Mohammed Hanif also buttress some of her arguments, but while these literary measures would have served well enough had her publisher been more commercial, for a university press to attempt to give Suvorova’s text a sense of academic legitimacy is ethically misleading.

On the level of voice and tone though, the writer makes some tasteful moves such as presenting Asif Zardari in a far more balanced light than many other writers have done to date. His alleged psychological humiliation by Murtaza, his genuine concern for his famous wife, his awkward position as a feudal-minded male married to a progressive figure in the public eye are all noted fairly. Somewhat odd and inexplicable is the author’s lengthy digression on the married life of Jinnah and Rattanbai ‘Ruttie’ Petit, especially since the Zardaris and Jinnahs were vastly dissimilar married couples to say the least. Generally, however, Suvorova commendably steers clear of falling into the trap of simply regurgitating what other writers have already noted — indeed, her independent thinking stands her in good stead when it comes to presenting us with the portrait of a female leader who will continue to elude comprehensive and definitive analysis for many decades to come. 

Benazir Bhutto: A Multidimensional Portrait


By Anna Suvorova

Oxford University Press, Karachi

ISBN 978-0199401727