|BBC Radio Talk Show
7 August, 1997
On August 14, 1997, my country Pakistan, will be fifty years old. As we approach our golden jubilee, my mind wanders over the landscape of the past.
Sometimes people say that very little has changed. But that’s not how it seems when we look at the past through the telescope of five decades.
When I was a child, my hometown of Larkana, like many other villages, was a sleepy little place.
Traveling to a village was a real adventure. It took a day and a night by train to Larkana. (Now it takes only an hour by airplane). Larkana did not have Roads, Telephones, Gas or any of the modern amenities, as it does now. When we travelled, we took with us tinned sardines, baked beans, tissue paper, insect spray to help us cope through the long summer days and the hot summer nights.
There was so much poverty in small towns and villages most people were shirtless and shoeless. Faces, feet, legs, caked in mud. Often the only place to bathe was mighty river, Indus, which flowed nearby.
Now the complaint is about unemployment. Then the complaint was about food.
Food was scare. Most families survived on one meal a day. Many did not even have one meal a day.
I remember as a child how the big doors of my father’s home in Larkana, Al-Murtaza, would be opened on special occasions to the public. While my father met the men in one part of the house, my mother met the women and children in another. Several women would be pleading with my mother to take their children into our homes in exchange for work. My mother would look helplessly at the pleading women and the hungry children. She did her best to help. But it wasn’t always possible to help everyone.
Seclusion was part of the social fabric of the society. Men lived separately in their wing, where women were not allowed. The women lived in the family quarters with the children which only male relatives could enter. Women wore Burqa, or the veil. Marriages in the big, tribal families, only took place between relatives. So, if there was no male relative available, the women simply did not marry. Or married a much younger or much older cousin.
It was a man’s world then.
When I see the girl students at Chandka Medical College studying alongside the boys, I wonder if they realize how much life has changed. In the old days, villages did not have colleges. Now there are plenty of places of learning. In the old days, girls stayed at home. Now they work, if they wish too.
In the first decade of its existence, no one could have dreamt that by its 50th birthday, our traditional society would have transformed itself to such an extent that it would twice elect a woman as Prime Minister in fair free and impartial elections.
In 1988, Pakistan became the first Muslim country to elect a woman Prime Minister.
Muslim women everywhere crossed a historic barrier on that December Day.
Today women in Pakistan sit in Parliament, run banks fly airplanes, have their own business.
When America’s First Lady visited Pakistan in April 1995, I hosted a modern day her’s party for her. We invited over a hundred outstanding women, including judges, police officers, educationists and advocates. We invited a housewife too, to demonstrate that women, and not society, should determine a women’s life choices.
When I was growing up, men had often two to three wives. We would visit them all in the women’s quarters. Every wife would often be addressed by the name of her eldest son. No wonder the Girl Child was not welcome.
But all this is changing now, particularly in the urban parts of the country. Television has played a key role in opening up people’s minds.
In the old days, a woman often had twelve to fourteen children. As a woman politician, women often confided to me about the physical hardship of bearing so many children. They wanted less children but didn’t know how to go about it. From these conversations grew the idea in my mind to formulate a population control programme based around women. So, we launched the Lady Health Visitor’s Programme, Pakistan’s population growth rate came down from 3.1% in 1988 – to less than to 2.8%. It will be 2.6% when the course is completed. It’s a record that, and Pakistanis are proud of it.
But we still have to cross the historic barrier when Pakistanis can take democracy for granted. For too long our country has seen the strong establishment unseat governments by overt military coups or by covert intelligence operations.
Fundamental human rights remain a concern. Our former High Commissioner to Her Majesty’s court, Wajid Shamsul Hassan, arrested despite a serious heart problem. He is still in hospital due to heart problem. He has been granted bail by the court but he can’t leave the hospital under advice of the doctors. Many other languish in prison cells including officials who worked for the democratic government and my family members. My husband Senator Asif Zardari has been held for nine months and the trial hasn’t even started.
But then that’s the price so many pay as countries all over the world which became independent with the sunset on the colonial era, strive to establish the rule of law.
My own life, like that of Pakistan’s, has been marked by tragedy and triumphs. But, despite the slander campaigns, I have resumed my role as leader of the opposition in the Pakistani Parliament.
When I look at my children, I think of all the children in Pakistan, and wonder: what will life be like for them when they are 25?
I remember my Father writing to me from prison and ending with the verse, Ah what shall I be at 50 When I find the world so bitter at 25
What will life be for them and for all Pakistani children, in the year 2020?
My generation, which reads books and works with the pen will be old-fashioned, computers will play a key role in every individual’s life from reading, working, shopping, learning and even studying.
Perhaps parents will have more time with children. As a working woman I have always felt bad for not . Seeing my children off to school every day or fetching them back. Now in London its such a joy to take them to Trafalgar Square and watch them feed the pigeons as my parents took me Or walk with them to Hyde Park and buy them an ice-cream cone.
I pray that my children, and all Pakistani children live in a Pakistan free from persecution where the peace of family life is not broken by the midnight knock taking a loved one away.
But as we approach the third Millennium Pakistanis need not dwell on the set backs but on the achievements.
We are a country of 140 million people. The only Muslim country with nuclear knowledge and missile capability. A country at the strategic crossroads to trade in East Asia, the Gulf and Central Asia. The oil and gas reserve of the future are landlocked in Central Asia and the only access is through the shores of Pakistan. As an Asian and Muslim country Pakistan is working for a global understanding between the Christian and Muslim world.
We may have our difficulties. Who doesn’t. But men, women, and nations are judged not on the basis of difficulties they face but the dignity and courage with which they seek to overcome them.
As we approach the third millennium it is time for us to fashion a new vision based on the values emerging from the post cold war international situation.
As a Pakistani I feel a special responsibility to make that vision a reality for my country as we move to that moment, less than one thousand days from now, when the sun sets in the black winter sky of one millennium and dawns the next to proclaim the birth of a new one.
I see a Third millennium where human rights are universal, and self-determination unabridged on the planet.
I see a Third Millennium were civil dialogue is restored. Where victimization of political adversaries is ended, where consensus and comity once again guide the national and international debate.
I see a Third Millennium of tolerance and understanding.
I see a Third Millennium where every child is planned, wanted, nurtured and supported.
I see a Third Millennium where the ruthless forces of market politics do not condemn a whole segment of people to live as the discarded forgotten.
And, above all, I see a Third Millennium where the birth of the girl child is welcomed with the same joy as the birth of a boy.
This is my vision. This is my hope. This is my dream.