The name conjures up an image of a poised, elegant woman, seemingly demure in her trademark white headscarf, with eyes that gave away her sharp intellect. This is the Benazir I saw in Pakistan after she returned from her self-imposed exile, twelve years after her second term as Prime Minister. But the “fiery and fun” woman who had taken Oxford by storm in her yellow (or “snot-coloured”, as MP Alan Duncan recalls it) MGB convertible was lost to me, and I tried to reconcile the serious stateswoman with the vivacious youth that had captured the attention of many at Oxford.
Bhutto came up in 1973, and read PPE at Lady Margaret Hall. For most of her Oxford acquaintances, the memory of Benazir is tied to her “beautiful” yellow convertible. Unable to make any claims about faulty WiFi networks, she once told her tutor that someone had stolen her essay out of her sports car. This same convertible was used to drive to weekend excursions to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Shakespearean plays, or to Baskin-Robbins in London, her favourite ice cream parlour. Other favourite pastimes included picnics at Blenheim Palace, punting and boathouse parties, and, perhaps most significantly, debating at the Oxford Union, of which she became later became president.
Bhutto made history by becoming the first Asian woman to become the president of a club that had only started admitting women in ten years ago. According to biographer Walter Isaacson, a Rhodes Scholar at Pembroke at the time who helped her with her campaign, Bhutto was determined to prove that a former member of the colonies could become president of the Union.
However, whilst much of Bhutto’s life at Oxford was just like anyone else’s, notwithstanding her position at the Union, in many ways it differed hugely. In March 1977, while she was busy painting the president’s office blue, and using a green and white theme (the colours of the Pakistan flag) for term-cards, her father was contesting elections. This was followed by riots in Pakistan, which endangered not only his life, but Benazir’s as well. She was paid a visit in Oxford by officials from Scotland Yard to make arrangements for her safety.
Although she claims in her autobiography that “Pakistan seemed far away” whilst she was at Oxford, it preoccupied her mind as much as tutorial essays and Union politics, and she poured over English and Pakistani newspapers most mornings in the St. Catz MCR. The debating chamber at the Union—where her portrait hangs today—became a second home to Benazir during her time at Oxford, and indeed, prepared her for a life beyond it: the first Asian female Union President was to go on to be the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan. Bhutto could be “fiery and fun” or serious and solemn—she was a dangerous woman in every sense of the word.