I was lucky enough to have met with Benazir Bhutto when she was a guest at a White House Project event nearly ten years ago. Commanding and quick-witted, Bhutto spoke movingly about women’s leadership and its integral importance to democracy. The next and last time I would see her would be at this year’s Council on Foreign Policy lunch in New York shortly before she was to return to Pakistan. I was impressed with her statements on democracy, yet what struck me most was her answer to the question “What would you have done differently during your term as Prime Minister?” Bhutto’s insightful response was that she wished she hadn’t felt the need to appear tougher to compensate for being female – a persistent issue for women who run for and hold office.
I talked with Bhutto for a few minutes afterwards, and have trailed her return to ostensibly share power with Musharraf, and when that fell thru, to stay and participate in the electoral process. But during the last several weeks of violence in Pakistan, the thought that I have had most frequently is that she came home willing to die. It was hard to imagine that it would end any other way.
Bhutto’s murder will be widely covered in the days to come. Yet there are women throughout the world who are not well known like Bhutto – women who also care so deeply about how their country is governed that they risk being raped, disappeared or murdered when they run for office. Just last week, Margaret Wanjiru – a parliamentary candidate in Kenya’s general elections – was reportedly attacked while campaigning in the capital. And there are women like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, who once elected, lead under conditions that expose them daily to the danger of being assassinated.
Women in the United States are not usually subjected to such extreme forms of violence and intimidation when they enter the political fray. Yet there are many women in this country who dare not run for office for fear of rough treatment in the press, or because politics is such a “dirty” business. A threatening prospect, perhaps, to many women. But it won’t kill you. Benazir Bhutto may have been a contentious political figure, but she was a pioneer in women’s leadership, paving the way for women to lead on the global stage. And if more women led, and more voices and options were on the table, as we say at The White House Project, it could “change everything.”