Bhutto and Romance

Michelle Styles, who is a beekeeper and that’s just bloody awesome, sent me a link to an article in The Guardian about the late Benazir Bhutto titled The Flawed and Feudal Princess. The author, William Dalrymple, met Bhutto on an interview, and attempts to write a contrasting account of her life, personal and political, in light of her assassination last week.

I won’t pretend in the least any ability to speak intelligently about Pakistani politics and Bhutto’s legacy as a former Prime Minister and candidate in the upcoming elections. But the mention of Bhutto’s love of romance novels in Dalrymple’s article is interesting:

For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto wasn’t was possibly more attractive even than what she was. She wasn’t a religious fundamentalist, she didn’t have a beard, she didn’t organise rallies where everyone shouts: ‘Death to America’ and she didn’t issue fatwas against Booker-winning authors, even though Salman Rushdie ridiculed her as the Virgin Ironpants in his novel Shame.

However, the very reasons that made the West love Benazir Bhutto are the same that gave many Pakistanis second thoughts. Her English might have been fluent, but you couldn’t say the same about her Urdu which she spoke like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently, but ungrammatically. Her Sindhi was even worse; apart from a few imperatives, she was completely at sea.

English friends who knew Benazir at Oxford remember a bubbly babe who drove to lectures in a yellow MG, wintered in Gstaad and who to used to talk of the thrill of walking through Cannes with her hunky younger brother and being ‘the centre of envy; wherever Shahnawaz went, women would be bowled over’.

This Benazir, known to her friends as Bibi or Pinky, adored royal biographies and slushy romances: in her old Karachi bedroom, I found stacks of well-thumbed Mills and Boons including An Affair to Forget, Sweet Imposter and two copies of The Butterfly and the Baron. This same Benazir also had a weakness for dodgy Seventies easy listening – ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ was apparently at the top of her playlist. This is also the Benazir who had an enviable line in red-rimmed fashion specs and who went weak at the sight of marrons glace.

Curious use of romance novels to create an understanding of a female leader. As Styles said in her email to me, “In many ways, it is unremarkable—an intelligent woman reading romance.” True – and say what you will about Bhutto’s political leadership, she was not unintelligent.

The article itself is thought provoking, and one of the few that painted a both-sides portrait of Bhutto, who was both singular as a woman leader in that part of the world, and not so extraordinary as she had a large amount of controversy and allegations of corruption surrounding her. That Dalrymple makes a it a point that she read “slushy” romance is interesting, though, because on one hand it makes her relatable to Western women who do read romance for leisure. But on the other hand, I wonder if the comment was meant to illustrate a flippant, uncaring side of her personality, who spent the wealth she had without worrying about those who lived under her administration – a point underscored by the account of how little her administration did to support the poor in Pakistan.

Truthfully, this is one of the few uses of romance reading as a marker of some degree of femininity or womanhood that didn’t raise my hackles. However, I’m not holding my breath for the release of an article detailing Hillary Clinton’s top favorite romance novels. Not a chance.


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  1. 1
    Lauren says:

    “Truthfully, this is one of the few uses of romance reading as a marker of some degree of femininity or womanhood that didn’t raise my hackles.”

    Agreed. I can’t help but get full of what I shall accurately call “flinging, faming fits of rage” over the notions that reading romance novels = unintelligent.

  2. 2
    sara says:

    You know Hillary has a big old stack of JR Ward and Linda Howard up in Chappaqua.

  3. 3
    Carrie Lofty says:

    This article is not highlighting positive traits. She’s not fluent in the languages of her home country. She rides around in a silly sportscar, listens to fluffy ballads, concerns herself with fashion, likes to visit posh places…and reads romance novels. Grrr. Because REAL politicians, REAL leaders wouldn’t be tempted by such tripe, would they? Real politicians would eschew pleasantries and their own personal tastes. Real politicians would challenge military autocrats and put their lives on the line…oh, wait.

  4. 4
    Sunita says:

    The coverage in the Western press has been alternately appalling and bizarre.  No one seems to be able to deal with the reality of a complex, courageous, and deeply flawed woman.  She was a terrible PM (twice). She let her husband loot her country.  She also spent five YEARS in prison and watched her father ousted in a coup, imprisoned, and then hanged. And oh yeah, she was very bright and very charismatic.

    I read the pop music and M&B references as not so subtle putdowns.  What I don’t get is why they are supposed to tell us anything about her as a person, except that she could enjoy non-serious forms of entertainment and that Dalrymple thinks she had terrible taste.  But then I’m not at all a fan of his so I’m biased.  I’ve never understood why so many Indians like him so much. His books are all over Crossword and the other English bookshops, although I bet he’s seriously outsold by M&B.

  5. 5
    Wry Hag says:

    Hm.  Wonder what an example of an “unslushy” romance would be.

  6. 6
    Sarah Frantz says:

    I’m with Carrie and Sunita—I think it’s a put-down about her taste, so I got pretty upset with it.  Trivialities of knowledge about her are cool, but it’s the context of this particular triviality that puts it on the “bad” end of the scale.

  7. 7
    Susan/DC says:

    I wonder if Dalrymple’s mention of Bhutto’s love of romance novels is not meant as a putdown of her intelligence but as a sign of how “other” she was in her own culture, in the same way he mentions her lack of fluency.  Just a guess (and trying to start the new year by living up to my resolution to be a kinder, gentler being, which will probably last until I read tomorrow’s headlines and lose it once again).

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