New memoir shares untold details of Benazir Bhutto's life: 'no one can say she was not a woman of courage'

Historian and author Victoria Schofield has released a book about her friendship with the first female prime minister of Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto was a larger than life political figure in Pakistan who fought against military dictatorship to become the first female prime minister of a Muslim country. When she was assassinated in December 2007, it left a massive void in the country’s politics.

The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship With Benazir Bhutto, by Victoria Schofield, offers a personal perspective on the life of the former premier, in contrast to the reams of political commentary on her that already exist.

A historian and author with expertise in South Asia, Schofield was motivated to write the book because of her long friendship with Bhutto. "When you know somebody personally, you understand them much better," she says.

“It is much easier to be critical of people from a distance because you do not understand them, you do not understand the ground realities, you do not understand what they are trying to deal with. And I think what my proximity to her gave me was a great understanding of the enormous difficulties she had to deal with.”

She says the book is not a biography, but rather a memoir about her friendship. It is based on Schofield's memories and diaries, and letters the two wrote to each other, which have never before been published.

Schofield met Bhutto as a student at the University of Oxford in 1974 and they remained friends throughout the politician's life. The first time they met was at the Oxford Union. "She was very different from us in that she was very outgoing and lively, and a bit of a breath of fresh air. I mean 1970s UK was slightly dull," Schofield says. They were both very much involved in the Oxford Union Society, and both went on to become its president, one following the other. "There had been two women before us, she was the third and I was the fourth, but they never had a woman follow another woman," Schofield says.

Pakistan's current prime minister, cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, also studied at Oxford. "We did not really operate in the same circles because he was playing cricket all the time.

"I never saw him in the Oxford Union. He was also senior to us," Schofield says.

What really altered the dynamic of the friendship between Bhutto and Schofield was the writer's first visit to Pakistan in 1978. Schofield says Bhutto wanted her friends to visit and understand more about Pakistan. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was a populist leader who served as prime minister of Pakistan between 1973-77.

“She was constantly having friends to stay over the summer. It is one of the reasons why I subsequently went, because she had already invited me to come. The previous summer, she had six friends come and stay, she wanted them to understand Pakistan. She was just a very nice person to have as a friend,” Schofield says.

She recalls being quite culturally unprepared on her first trip. "It was pre Iranian Revolution," she says. "We in the West had really no concept of what life was like in Pakistan. What Islam was, customs, mode of dress, or anything like that. So I went really what I would call inappropriately dressed, in a short skirt and a T-shirt."

Bhutto, under house arrest at the time, was the only friend Schofield had in Pakistan. The dynamic quickly changed from a carefree type of undergraduate relationship to one of life and death under the military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul Haq, who ruled the country in the late 70s and a large part of the 80s.

In July 1977, the elder Bhutto was removed from power in a military coup. He was later arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder a political opponent. His daughter was meeting party workers and his supporters – so General Zia ul Haq detained her, with the intention of preventing her from rallying political support, Schofield says. After Bhutto filed a habeas corpus petition in the Sindh High Court, she was released in June 1978 – but then when she undertook more political activity, she was detained again in October.

"Military dictatorship then was a very difficult time for anybody who spoke out, and you only have to look back on the archives and see how many political prisoners were swept into jail," Schofield says.

When Bhutto was elected prime minister for the first time in 1988, people had enormous expectations. She was unable to complete her term in office and in August 1990 her government was dismissed when the president dissolved the national assembly. Bhutto became the premier again in 1993 but, once again, could not complete her term.

Schofield says observers have not shown a nuanced understanding of Bhutto, stressing that she could not operate in the way her male counterparts did. “Men would not shake hands, the mullahs preached against her,” she says.

“You do not normally get that kind of thing in another country. Jacinda Ardern would not have that in New Zealand, for example, she would not have a priest standing up in the pulpit saying: ‘She should not be prime minister because she is a woman.’”

A sub-theme in the book is Schofield’s long-standing interest in writing on the Kashmir issue. She says it was thanks to her friendship with Bhutto that she became hugely interested in the topic.

At the time, Kashmir was an issue that did not get as much coverage. “It was much easier for me to choose a subject which affected Pakistan, but wasn’t directly about her, if you see what I mean, although obviously, she comes into the story,” Schofield says.

Bhutto was thrilled her friend was following the subject so assiduously. "She was very supportive in that respect but did not try and influence me at all to put Pakistan's position forward. And I think [that is] very important as a journalist," Schofield says.

The author took her time to write this book. Immediately after the assassination, the subject was too raw for her to continue, and then for nearly 10 years Schofield was under contract working on another project. She says Bhutto's children have grown older now and it is easier for them to read about their mother. She says "certain things are right at certain times to do, and it was not right to finish it before, but it was right to do it now".

Although her supporters looked at Bhutto as a champion of democracy, her career in politics was marred by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Schofield stresses the need to look at the package as a whole and the freedom of movement Bhutto did not have. “You are thinking of a prime minister that can wave a magic wand [and] do everything,” she says. “But in a society like Pakistan, that was not optimal, and it was never possible. But the blame was always laid on her. You lay the blame on the prime minister, the prime minister has to take the fall. But if you look at it and you dissect it, and you really study it, her hands were tied.”

Bhutto was a tireless campaigner for democracy who did not shy away from speaking out against dictators or terrorists, at enormous risks to her personal safety. She paid the ultimate price when she was killed in a suicide bombing and gun attack after an election rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007.

"Whatever the situation and whatever people's feelings about Benazir, the take-home message was her tremendous courage. I am sure she would have risen to the occasion also with the coronavirus. Like her or dislike her, no one, not even her political opponents can say she was not a woman of courage. And in life, you need to have courage," she says.

Among future projects, Schofield is planning to release a chapter next year for her new book, Kashmir in Conflict.