Ashley Belohlavek: How Benazir Bhutto Continued the Legacy of Mughal Empress Nur Jahan

As we have all learned throughout the study of Islamic theology and society, politics and religion cannot exist without the other. Islam, on one hand, is often criticized for its oppression of women (though this critique is highly uninformed) and politics has had a long history of excluding women from positions of power and influence. Ironically, however, one of the countries with the highest population of Muslims in the world, Pakistan, is one of few countries that have elected a woman as the most powerful political player in her government (something so-called “progressive” nations like the U.S. have yet to do). The Mughal Empire, an incredibly impactful province from 14th-19th century Northern India, also made waves as an increasingly tolerant and inclusive society, and its female members crept up in history as emerging feminist icons. In this paper, I will analyze the parallels between the life and politics of Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan along with her predecessors, the empresses of Mughal India, particularly Empress Nur Jahan, in order to show how in many ways Benazir has successfully carried out their image and goals to protect her Pakistani sisters and achieve justice for her people through female empowerment.

Benazir Bhutto served as the first and only female Prime Minister of Pakistan, remained in office for two terms (though was forcefully removed from office both times despite being continuously selected by the public), and unsurprisingly or not, was assassinated, as other female prime ministers have been, including Indira Gandhi from the neighboring Indian subcontinent. Bhutto spent a good portion of her life either in exile or dodging opposition from her own government. She even survived an assassination attempt before the second and fatal attempt of 2007, the first killing 136 people and the second killing her along with 15 other civilians. It isn’t undoubtedly known who orchestrated the final attack, but it is generally accepted that it was the work of a Pakistani Taliban extremist. Benazir came to power in a rather unconventional manner, as did her Mughal predecessors. At the time of her rise to the top of the Pakistan People’s Party, the founder, her own father, had fallen victim to a coup by the Pakistani military, leaving Benazir to take over her father’s party by herself, inheriting his legacy and responsibilities as well. Similar to Benazir’s sudden endowment of responsibilities, Nur Jahan, beloved wife of Jahangir of Mughal India, married into the Mughal royal family, but she ended up taking on the roles of the emperor himself, something she had not originally planned on. Due to her husband’s struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, Nur would actually act in his place, employing her own diplomatic skill and political prowess, essentially running the empire in her absent husband’s place. What’s fascinating is that Benazir Bhutto, even under a sanctioned exile from her homeland, continued to preside over the PPP in Pakistan all the way from London. Even in their times of disadvantagement, these Muslim women took their opportunities by the horns and fought to continue their political work despite their obstacles.

Life for women in Mughal India was surprisingly dismal (surprising because this was also a period of time where religious tolerance was gaining influence thanks to Mughal emperor Akbar the Great of the 16th century). Once again, being a woman in Mughal Indian society was nothing special. The birth of boys in the family was celebrated while girls were disappointments. Women were not really allowed to remarry and even child marriage was encouraged, more so by Muslims. This is all very ironic, especially when you look at what the Qur’an says in response to this archaic attitude towards women’s rights and humanity. Nur Jahan, however, is often said to be one of the most influential women in Indian history. Born to the nobility, she ended up in the court of Jahangir, the emperor of Mughal India in the late 16th through early 17th century, and he fell in love with her, marrying her within three years of their first meeting. It was through her husband’s office that she was able to sway policy in her favor. Some accounts of her manipulation of her husband’s position expose her in a vindictive light, but in her husband’s absence of responsibility and focus, she simply became the steady hand that guided Mughal society through its progression. She followed past Mughals’ initiative in their patronage to the arts, specifically Persian miniatures and impressive tombs, she eventually had her name etched on Indian currency and she invested in lots of goods such as jewelry, clothes, and other luxury items, also working to improve trade relations. Ultimately, she worked to improve the lives of ordinary Mughal citizens and prolong the vitality of the Mughal name, but she didn’t work with only her own self-interest in mind.

While Benazir lived in an incredibly different time from her Mughal sisters, there are recurring themes in all of their lives of their efforts rule their state despite the oppressive barriers they encountered. Benazir made rights for women and children one of the most fundamental aspects of her campaign throughout her political career, as did powerful Mughal women, particularly Nur Jahan. While Bhutto was focused on establishing a better sense of equity between genders, especially during a time when women would often face threats of normalized public humiliation, gang sexual assaults and general gender stigmas, Jahan would also work to create a fairer playing field for women in her society by giving dowries and land grants to orphaned girls, for example.

Besides their passions and policies, Benazir and Nur also have very similar backgrounds in terms of being arrested and targeted by their government. This may sound like they both did their countries wrong while in their positions of power, but this is actually not the case at all. In Benazir’s case, she was targeted by the Pakistani military the moment after they hung her father, the founder of the PPP and the recently elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, and took his governmental power from him. In order to prevent her retaliation, they jailed her for several years until she was finally able to flee her own country to find refuge in London. During her time in London, however, she established an underground network with her brothers in order support the opposition of military corruption and martial law in Pakistan. As for Nur, her fall from grace came at the end of her husband’s reign when his favorite son, Shah Jahan rose to power. Due to her lack of compliance with his wishes, Shah Jahan ordered her arrest and eventually she was forced to flee the empire with her daughter, spending the rest of her days banished from her home. Neither of these ladies were strangers to exile, but nonetheless they took every opportunity given to them to influence their political environment.

Ultimately, perhaps the biggest thing that Benazir has in common with so many royal Mughal women, Nur Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal, etc., is that she was given a position of power in a male-dominated field and she truly made a name for herself through this experience. These women were not faces that came into the political and societal frame and then disappeared. Mumtaz Mahal, favorite wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, has an entire monument dedicated to her that millions of tourists visit every single year. Nur Jahan ruled an entire empire for decades through careful manipulation of her political and familial connections and gained infinite respect from her husband, the actual ruler of the empire, enough that allowed her to make his every decision. And in more modern times, Benazir Bhutto was elected by the people of Pakistan to be their first female head of state, multiple times. Benazir had a long history of her critical perspective of her own government and its corruption. She had been jailed for participation in anti-government demonstrations (which is clearly stated on her official website, mind you) before being elected to be head of the entire government. Benazir’s rise to power was no fluke. She publicly displayed her distaste for the state of her government as it was, and people encouraged her run for office.

Despite the fact that her main concern was not the empowerment of women, her determination to be the leader that carried Pakistan to stability and success and rule over a great Islamic society is what makes her a feminist icon, showing girls that yes, they do have a spot in politics and achievement. Nur Jahan was the seed that allowed Benazir to blossom. Both women were forced in their own respective eras to flee their homes for the sake of the safety of themselves and their families. Nur was forced to spend the rest of her days in hiding, but her work in the time she was given to rule her empire helped Benazir have the ability to come back to her country eventually to try to retake power and reinstate herself as the democratically elected leader of Pakistan. Almost immediately after her return to Pakistan in 2007, Benazir was met with an assassination attempt at her anti-corruption campaign rally for Prime Minister, and she just barely survived while over 100 people died from the tragic incident. Not even a nearly successful assassination attempt made Bhutto quit trying to lead her country, though unfortunately a second attempt on her life soon after ended up killing her, as her campaign was gaining support and she was expected to win the election. It is generally accepted that suicide bombers from the Pakistani Taliban carried out both assassination attempts and she likely died from the impact of the second explosion and its repercussions. Bhutto is regarded as such a symbolic leader for her perseverance and fearlessness in the face of constant threats on her life, not to mention just for being a role model for all women in a time when girls are still seen as less than in many ways.

Benazir Bhutto remains an icon for feminism and the values of the Pakistan People’s Party, even though she no longer fights for her passions in this world. Just as Nur Jahan’s time for political action and social work has passed, so too has Benazir’s. These two historical women faced similar challenges in incredibly different periods of time, but they are both courageous women who did not back down to the threat of incarceration, physical harm or political failure; they fought till the end. Nur’s legacy of innovation has been continued through Benazir’s work towards social justice and equality, stemming from the blood, sweat and tears of a female leader such as herself. While they may not have been contemporaries, Benazir and Nur Jahan would have worked well together to further the peace and prosperity of their Pakistani and Mughal brothers and especially sisters.


Works Cited:

Women in World History Curriculum. “Female Heroes of Asia: India: Nur Jahan.” Accessed December 18, 2016.

Benazir Bhutto. “About Benazir.” Accessed December 18, 2016.

Academy of Achievement. “Benazir Bhutto.” Accessed December 17, 2016.