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.
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.