Daughter of Destiny by Benazir Bhutto

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Bhutto’s autobiography, Daughter of Destiny (published in 1988 as Daughter of the East), tells a completely unique story. Bhutto was the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country (Pakistan), and she first went through years of struggle, including years of solitary confinement, before she could be an example of democracy.

Much of her autobiography was written prior to 1988, before she was elected prime minister. She says she wrote it “to set down the record of the brutal Martial Law regime of General Zia ul-Haq” (page 374). The remainder of her book shares how she was briefly allowed to serve the country and restore some democratic freedoms before a dictatorship again gained control of the country.

Despite all the drama with which Bhutto wrote, for much of the time I was reading, I fundamentally didn’t understand the import of resisting the regime. From my couch in the USA, it seemed to be an unnecessary, violent political struggle. Then I read a letter Bhutto received from a political prisoner:

I prefer to be hanged than live under the oppressor. To give in is not our principle. We are not ready to call a donkey a horse, or black or white, out of fear of Martial Law. (page 276)

I finally understood a little bit what it meant to live under a dictator: it meant denying what you know to be true because you’re threatened.

That type of understanding is why I read about the histories of other cultures. I feel I cannot relate at all: I live in a peaceful country and have my entire life. Bhutto’s story is one of a country that had been (relatively) peaceful her entire life (for she was born into an independent Pakistan), until a military dictator took over the democratically elected government and established military rule.

Benazir Bhutto shares her passion for Pakistan, the people of Pakistan, and democracy in her autobiography. I only wish it were better told: Daughter of Destiny had serious flaws that made it a frustrating read.

Destiny and Choices

Because Benazir Bhutto was born into a wealthy family, she was given many opportunities as a Pakistani and as a woman. She learned about democracy and she became a role-model for women, showing them that they can make a difference. She reminded me of Katharine Graham’s role as a woman in power (which I read about in Graham’s autobiography Personal History, reviewed here), and also  of Nelson Mandela’s fight for freedom and basic rights (which I read about in his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom, read in pre-blogging days). Mandela, too, was wrongly imprisoned for many years, all while being a leader of an illegal political organization.

But of course Benazir Bhutto’s story is far different from these other two individuals. Bhutto reiterates throughout her book that she was “destined” to be a leader. In some respects, I agree. Her father was a politician and eventually prime minister, thus encouraging her interest in the subject. However, Benazir Bhutto had choices. She chose to study politics, while her sister did not and her brothers became terrorists. When Bhutto knew that she would be going to jail, she stayed and faced the dictator; many people did leave the country. No, Benazir had choices: her life was not destined. She chose to walk in dangerous paths.

Problems with the Text

Unfortunately, despite the fascinating subject matter, I found Daughter of Destiny to be horribly written.

Most of the book jumps from past to present tense, using flashbacks. Yet, even the flashbacks are not consistent or clear. Even without tense shifts, her thoughts are all over the board. In some places, it seems she can’t remember what the focus of a chapter is (was there ever a focus?). She desperately needed an editor or ghost writer to help her gain structure.

I also disliked how many of the dramatic events were told as if the book were a memoir. Bhutto included very specific conversations that dragged for multiple pages, complete with character actions and overly staged emotions. I feel the story would have been dramatic without the added details, so this was rather painful to read. I wished for a more straight-forward “this is my life” account, rather than a dramatic attempt to convince me that the politics of a dictator are bad.

My last criticism is that Benazir Bhutto complained a lot. Of course, this is a political biography of a political person. I didn’t realize until page 376 (as quoted above) that her main purpose was to show the wickedness of the Zia dictatorship; I thought I was reading about her life. In that sense, then, this book was a very negative portrayal of her life: every horrible thing that happened to Benazir was General Zia’s fault. I felt she failed to take responsibility for things that really were her choice. Of course General Zia made life challenging, but he didn’t make every small choice for her.

Politics Are Hard for Me

I enjoyed reading this book, but I struggle very much with these types of books: I find myself very angry with the U.S. government’s choices, and I wish something else could have been done.

In this particular case, I also found myself angry with Benazir Bhutto’s biases, especially about her father. She venerates him through the book, even considering that when he was prime minister in the 1970s, he began a nuclear program. I thought this was quite strange, considering his greatly impoverished country needed education (and basic rights!) for women and girls. It was odd to me that Benazir didn’t see the strangeness of that political decision in the midst of the Cold War. I’m not convinced her father was the wonderful leader she always claimed him to be.

I’m also not convinced that Benazir was necessarily a great political leader. Not that she was a bad one, but I felt I wasn’t getting all the story. It confused me that the Bhutto family always led. While their family obviously had the financial means, it seemed undemocratic for the leadership to default to the wealthy widow or child of the previous leader. Rich heiresses (or heirs) do not necessarily make good democratic politicians. Even when Benazir wrote her political will in 2007, she requested that her husband take over the party. That seems odd and inappropriate to me: throughout this book he never had political inclinations. He is now president of Pakistan. Does this seem odd to anyone else?

All that said, I’m glad for Bhutto’s leadership in the country when they desperately needed a democratic leader. I am very glad that Obama is expressing support of Pakistan’s democracy, and I hope the democracy can last. Pakistan needs support if this democracy is to be sustained: the country seems rather susceptible to military dictatorships.

Why I Read It

When Myrthe mentioned the Global Voices Book Challenge, I decided to join. The concept of the challenge is to read a book, fiction or nonfiction, about a country that you have never read about before by April 23. I chose to read about Pakistan;  although I read Three Cups of Tea last year, that was mostly about the American. I also didn’t finish by April 23. So I cheated.

All that said, I’m glad I took the time to read this, even though it was poorly written. I learned a lot, and I’m all the more interested in the region.

Benazir Bhutto also recently wrote Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, this time with the help of professional writer (thank goodness!). I’ve read that it’s a rebuttal to Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which I’m currently reading. I look forward to her thoughts.

Can you recommend a nonfiction book about Pakistan and/or Afghanistan? I’m interested in reading more about the region.

I read Daughter of Destiny for the Global Voices Book Challenge and for the World Citizen Challenge (“Biography”).

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed Daughter of Destiny or Daughter of the East on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on May 7, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • You know, I’ve read several books about Afghanistan and somehow manage to have never read any at all on Pakistan, so I don’t know anything about their political struggles. Was this book a translation? MIght that have accounted for the shifting in the writing? Or, perhaps, if it was written in English by someone who didn’t speak English as a first language?

  • Amanda, which Afghanistan nonfiction have your read? I’d be interested. As for this one, no it wasn’t a translation and English was one of her first languages, along with Urdu (I think that was the other one). In fact, she probably knew English better than Urdu since she spent 8 years abroad from age 16-24 and then later when she was in exile. She was trying to write with flashbacks so that’s why there were tense shifts. It was just poorly done. Some people are not great writers, and she was one of them.

  • I remember watching the news footage a few years ago when Bhutto was attempting to return to Pakistan. Tension was high and she was almost killed. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that she had made it. And then she WAS killed. It was quite sad.

    Thanks for this review of her book. It is not something I want to read, but since I only knew her from the news footage, your review gave me a better idea of who she was.

  • I always felt that Benazir Bhutto was more important in her role as a symbol of democracy and rational resistance to despotism than as a politician / statesman. Of course, that’s an easy assumption to make when (1) I know nothing about her politics besides her pro-democracy bend and (2) she plays the noble exile so well.

    I think it’s inevitable that her assassination influence the light in which her life and her politics are examined. But do you think her assassination would affect the way people approach this specific autobiography? I feel like I would be more forgiving of her literary failings.

  • Heather J., yes, it was tragic — although I admit I didn’t notice it when it happened. I’ve been out of the political loop for a while and that happened to be when I had a newborn. In some respects, though, it seems she’d been waiting for her assassination her whole life. It seemed evident from her comments in the book that she assumed her life would one of a martyr.

    Lily, her assassination DEFINITELY influences the reader of this book. We go in knowing she’ll be a martyr, and like I just said, I think she seemed to have an attitude of a martyr throughout.

    I know nothing about her politics either, aside from this book. I know she is an example of democracy in a country that needs it, so in that sense, it feels wrong to say anything wrong about her, even about her writing. And yet, like I say, I think I distrust her throughout in terms of “is she a good political leader?” She obviously thinks highly of herself. I often distrust people who feel that way.

  • I think that’s a common problem with autobiographies – how much can the reader trust the author? My latest autobiography / memoir was about a virtuoso pianist who’s only a year older than I am. Having seen him perform, he’s no doubt very talented. But it still irks me that a chunk of the book was just about him beating other pianists at competitions, and another chunk was about how unfair his critics are.

    To be fair, I bet it’s very difficult as a public and influential figure to pen an autobiography without sounding a little pompous. If the author is in fact a Very Important Person, then it would be inaccurate to omit his or her accomplishments. That’s why I prefer autobiographies that focus on specific memories, formative experiences, etc. – facts that I can’t find on Wikipedia. That type of autobiography tends to humanize famous figures and add to my understanding of them as people rather than public personae.

  • Lily, and yet, both Nelson Mandela and Katharine Graham had remarkably written, non-pompous delightful autobiographies. I don’t take the blame off the writer, no matter how much of a VIP they are. It is possible to come across as not a self-centered jerk.

    Kathy, well, at least I learned a lot!

    Jason, I, uh, found that stuff. Similarly damning quotes about her father too when he started the nuclear program in the 1970s. In fact, I’d written up an entire paragraph complaining about how I can’t believe this family rules like it is royalty. But I decided this was long enough already. 🙂

  • I’m always a little wary of autobiographies and memoirs. People fudge the details to make themselves look better and always have their basis, and as you said in your review, Benazir Bhutto was no different.

    Sometimes I think unauthorized biographies do a better job than authorized ones. Those authors have to really dig for what happened, back it up with documented evidence, whereas people who are writing about themselves can change it and few people bat an eye. (Of course, unauthorized authors may also have their basis too.)

  • If you haven’t read Ghost Wars, it’s pretty awesome. It’s also HUGE and dense, so it took me quite awhile to work through! It’s more about US-Afghan stuff, but it’s the only recommendation I can think of offhand.

    My dad and I went to see Bhutto speak when she was in our town a few years ago. It was pretty fascinating, though of course I know there’s a lot of corruption she won’t admit too. I was shocked when she was assassinated, though, since I had shaken her hand!

  • Eva, that’s awesome that you’d met her!

    Yes, probably hard to admit to the corruption, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s not completely honest….

    I haven’t read or even heard of Ghost Wars! Is it the book by Steven Coll? (There are a few by that name at LibraryThing.) Sounds interesting.

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