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On Photos and Politics in Pakistan

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The photo seems innocuous enough. For the Gerald Ford Presidential Library, it is not important enough even to have a larger picture than this contact sheet by Bill Fitz-Patrick, the White House photographer. But a world away, it was big news; on the streets of Pakistan it fueled protests.

It showed Nusrat Bhutto, the wife of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, wearing a sleeveless blouse and dancing with President Ford during a White House state dinner in 1975. On the streets of Lahore and Karachi, the anti-Bhutto demonstrators waved the photocopies of American magazines bearing the photos to prove that the Bhuttos were not “good Muslims”. In Lahore and Karachi, the crowds chanted, “Bhutto is a Hindu, Bhutto is a Jew.”

In the hindsight, a disturbingly volatile country was in the making even then. Amidst the accusations and counter-accusations of vote-rigging were the attempts to incite religious and racial divisions. The women policemen were labelled prostitutes in a series of protests marked by virulent anti-woman propaganda, also targeted towards Zulfikar’s wife and later his daughter Benazir. He was finally deposed in a military coup in 1977 and hanged after a show trial two years later.


On 16 December 1977, when Nusrat showed up to a test match at Lahore’s Gaddafi stadium, her supporters cried: “Long live Bhutto!”. In the ensuing uproar between pro- and anti-Bhutto fractions, the military police severely beat her; her head injuries required tweleve stitches and the photo of her injured face was headlines news again. From this moment on, the military government had kept her under house arrest for the remainder of Zulfikar’s trial, and secretly hanged him hours before the scheduled time, so that Nusrat would not be present at the execution. She lived on to see a Bhutto return to the premiership in the person of her daughter Benazir, but also saw Benazir’s assassination in 2007.

Pakistan is a different place now; the fast-growing country briefly seen in the 60s and the 70s as India and China languished had disappeared under a series of economic mismanagement and military coups. Even Benezir Bhutto seems to reject those urbane days now. In an interview with the Guardian’s Ian Jack, the late politician confidently proclaimed, “Good Muslim girls don’t dance with foreign men,” and explained that the President had breached the diplomatic protocol, and put her mother in a difficult position by asking for a dance. Her father did not ask Betty Ford’s hand for the dance, she noted.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 4, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Posted in Contact Sheets, Politics

Tagged with ,

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