One of my sisters attended Harvard University as an undergraduate. I helped her move into her freshman dorm in Wigglesworth Hall on Harvard Yard. Wigglesworth was divided into suites with bedrooms and bathrooms off a sitting room with a fireplace. It was an old building and the suites looked like Sherlock Holmes’ apartment.
Wigglesworth was (I forget) three or four stories high and had two (I think) multi-student suites off a given stairwell. My sister’s suite was on an upper floor, so as we hauled her comforter and table lamps and suitcases up the stairs we passed by the lower floor suites.
In the stairwell that first day, the very first new friend my sister made was a cute little freshman in tan corduroy jeans with her dark hair pulled into two pigtails. She looked more like a high school freshman than a college student. She was tacking up fliers for some kind of cause (might have been related to world hunger) on the bulletin boards in the stairwell.
She was pretty and outgoing and introduced herself to us at once, "Hi, I’m Bennie, Bennie Bhutto." She offered to help move the bedding in, and may have carried up the pillows. She had arrived a couple days before my sister and filled us in on the lay of the land: Where the Baskin Robbins was; how to find the bookstore; you name it, she was willing to tour guide.
Over the course of my sister’s freshman year, I often drove up to Boston to visit. From Bennie and from stories my sister told me, I learned that Bennie’s real name was Benazir, but she had decided to use her nickname in order to fit in better in America. I learned that she came from a country where women were undervalued and not often well educated.
Her family, for reasons never explained to me, had told her that someday she would be the leader of her home nation and in order to achieve that she would need the credibility in the eyes of the western world that would come from a premier western education–they decided that the Harvard/American connection would be more valuable than the connections she would get if she was educated in Europe.
She seemed to believe in this preordained destiny and did not fight it. She said it was her obligation. I thought the whole thing sounded crazy, how could her family just DECIDE to make her a national leader? I mean, a Harvard education is a wonderful thing, but not every Harvard graduate goes on to lead a nation. I used the word "preposterous" more than once to describe her life plan. Later, I learned just how wrong I could be.
She was so convinced that she would become Pakistan’s leader, she said the only one way that could not happen, would be if her brother killed her first. One of her brothers was furious that she, a worthless girl, had been chosen by the family instead of him–a not girl. I read in the newspapers years later that one of her brothers had been killed and that her niece blamed Bennie for it. I always wondered if that was the brother who had threatened her so many years before.
She was a bright young woman and SOOOO interested in human rights and world events, and certainly made me feel uninformed. She was one of the people who got me started on my news addiction, because she insisted that you could never read a news story from just one source. You had to read the same story in several different papers if you had any hope of getting an accurate feel for what happened. Even then, she was a savvy consumer of information.
She grew into an elegant, self-possessed and powerful woman. By her very existence as a leader, she elevated other women in Pakistan and around the world. She lived a brave life and did not let fear stop her from doing what she was trying to do.
Other people can analyze what her death means in political terms, in human terms. An intelligent, thoughtful woman is gone from this world, and I am saddened to learn that.
Photo credit AFP