By Roy Hattersley (THE GUARDIAN, 20/08/07):
I first met Benazir Bhutto when she was in her last year at Oxford. Wearing a tweed suit and silk headscarf, she looked the perfect Sloane Ranger. When I last saw her she was the prime minister in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. She still wore a headscarf, but the suit had been replaced by a shalwar kameez.The change of style seemed symbolic. Between our first and last meeting, I came to the firm conclusion that – whatever the truth of the allegations that her enemies have made against her – she represents Pakistan’s best hope of taking its place among the democratic nations of the free world. I think that still. Someone has to build a bridge between Islam and what its most devout adherents regard as the degenerate universe outside its theological boundaries. Bhutto has always been willing to attempt that daunting task. Last week on Newsnight she talked about returning home. If she does, the reception that she receives will demonstrate how far along the road from dictatorship Pakistan has travelled since it became an independent nation.
One day, almost 20 years ago, I was waiting in Nawaz Sharif’s outside office when a member of his staff told me that our meeting must be delayed. Courtesy required the prime minister to take his place in parliament to hear the leader of the opposition make an unexpected contribution to an important debate. Would I like to sit in the public gallery until he was free? I took up the offer and listened, with awe and wonder, as Bhutto attacked the proposal to introduce sharia law into all of Pakistan. Her speech ended with a bitter attack on the mullahs who were leading the campaign for what they claimed was true Islamic justice. Where were they, she asked rhetorically, during the battle for independence. Whether or not she was right to say that they had always sided with the imperial Raj, the force of her denunciation sent shivers down my spine.
The night before I heard her denounce the fundamentalists, Bhutto and I had both been to dinner with the British ambassador, who was to become high commissioner when, thanks to her, Pakistan rejoined the Commonwealth. The head of Pakistan International Airlines, a former air chief marshall, was among the guests, and I could not resist the opportunity to ask him a contentious question. Earlier in the day I had been told – whether correctly or not I cannot say – that, according to the Qur’an, the sky is a blue carpet held over the Earth by Allah, and the stars His light which nothing could obscure.
I thought that the idea was much more attractive than the explanation that I had been taught in schoolboy physics, but I could see that it might raise problems for devout believers. So, as the dinner progressed, I raised the subject of pious pilots. How did they deal with the idea of the carpet in the sky? There was, the airman gravely replied, no difficulty. “They believe one thing up there and another down here.” Bhutto, in her most serious voice added: “These things can always be worked out.”
Years later, when Bhutto was prime minister, I saw an example of how the working out was done. I was due to see her at 10 in the morning, but the meeting was postponed until after two in the afternoon. When I explained that I had planned to leave for home shortly after lunch, I was told that a seat would be found for me on the evening flight. The prime minister was determined I should visit a police station at which all the officers were women. Bhutto spoke about it with great eloquence. “Think,” she said, “about what it demonstrates. Women of authority. Women doing work traditionally done by men.”
I was so impressed that, on the way out to the airport, I jabbered on about the progress of emancipation to the civil servant whose job it was to smooth my passage through immigration. Had no male officers objected? On the contrary, he explained, an all-women police station avoided male constables suffering the indignity of taking orders from female inspectors. These things, I thought, can be worked out. There is no one more likely to work them out than Benazir Bhutto.