Benazir Bhutto: First Woman Leader of a Muslim Nation

From Women and Girls Lead, Volume 1 collection, lesson plan 1 of 6

Grade Levels: 9-12, College (Note: The film module includes some discussion of rape and violent imagery.)

Estimated Time Needed: Two 50-minute class periods

Purpose of the Lesson: Students will study various elements of the context in which Benazir Bhutto became the first woman leader of a Muslim nation, including the status of women in Pakistan, the influences of Islam and the military on Pakistani politics, the leadership of her father, and her personal family life. In addition, the class will discuss the complexities of being a female leader in a Muslim country. Finally, students will write persuasive essays that connect Bhutto to women's leadership topics that they think are important.


Students will:

  • Research and describe the context in which Benazir Bhutto rose to leadership as Prime Minister of Pakistan;
  • Discuss the complexities of being a female leader in a Muslim country;
  • Compare the challenges faced by Bhutto with those faced by women in the United States;
  • Connect Bhutto to women's leadership topics in persuasive essays.


Please note: Download teacher and student handouts in PDF format by clicking "Download lesson materials" at left

  • Equipment to show the film modules to the class
  • Film Modules: History of Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto: First Woman Leader of a Muslim Nation (lengths: 3:38 and 7:45)
  • Student Handout: Research Guide
  • Teacher Key for the "Research Guide" handout
  • Student Handout: Viewing Guide

Writter: Cari Ladd

Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

  1. Show the class a picture of Benazir Bhutto and tell students that she was elected to serve as Prime Minister of Pakistan when she was 35 years old, making her the first woman leader of a Muslim nation.

  2. Introduce the concept of the film Bhutto with students. Set up a KWL chart, to find out what students already know about Islamic culture in Pakistan, and what they might like to learn through this lesson. (A KWL chart is divided into three columns: What students KNOW; What students WANT to find out; and What students have LEARNED). Fill in the first two columns as a group. Talking about what students already know will help students from Pakistan or other Islamic cultures share their heritage with the class. It will also help dispel misconceptions students may have about the parts of the world where the film takes place.

  3. Provide a brief introduction to Pakistan by showing the film module History of Pakistan (length: 3:38). Instruct students to watch for factors that might make it difficult for any woman to become Prime Minister of Pakistan. Afterwards, discuss what students observed, which could include issues like Pakistan's low literacy rate for females, the fact that many schools for girls have been destroyed, traditional roles for women in Islam, male military leaders playing such a dominant role in Pakistan's political history, etc.

  4. Conduct a study of the context in which Bhutto rose to leadership in Pakistan by dividing the class into five groups and assigning each group a topic from the Research Guide handout. Students should then research the answers to their assigned questions and record the information on the handout.

  5. Have each group report its findings to the class so that all students can complete their handouts. Ask the class to list and then rank some of the challenges that Bhutto had to overcome in order to become Prime Minister of Pakistan. Do any of these same obstacles exist in the United States?

  6. Distribute the Viewing Guide for the film module Benazir Bhutto: First Woman Leader of a Muslim Nation. Review the questions in the guide to help focus student viewing, then show the module (length: 7:45).

  7. Discuss students' responses to the questions in the Viewing Guide.

  8. Have students look through their responses to the questions in the Viewing Guide and the Research Guide and highlight all of the issues raised about the difficulty Benazir Bhutto faced because she was a woman. With a partner, each student will make a list of debatable issues that the film raises about women in leadership positions (for example, the compatibility of leadership and motherhood, women's lack of access to education, or the role of women in traditional Islam) and identify one that he or she would like to write about. After they have chosen their topic, ask students to identify their position on the issue: Do they agree or disagree? Why? Who would be likely to think differently? What would they say to that person if they could?

  9. Fill in the KWL chart from Procedure 2 as a group, completing the "L" section or "What did you LEARN?" Compare the answers from LEARN to the middle column – "What did you WANT to find out?" Did students discover the answers to most of their questions? Did they find out more than they anticipated? Do they still have open questions? If so, discuss as a class how they might answer those questions.

  10. Conclude the lesson by asking students to write a persuasive essay that clearly establishes and explains their position on an issue of women and leadership.

  1. Evaluate whether or not Bhutto was a feminist. First, have students write down and bring to class their personal definitions of the term "feminist." (Alternatively, students could bring in quotes that reflect their ideas about feminists.) Ask students to share and discuss their ideas in small groups and afterwards revise their definitions if desired. Then, have students gather evidence from the film and other research on Bhutto that supports or rejects the idea that she was a feminist, based on their personal definitions. Finally, ask students to explain their thinking and supporting evidence in persuasive essays.

  2. Assess Bhutto's record on improving the lives of women in Pakistan. Ask students to research Bhutto's work to set up women's police stations and to expand educational opportunities for females. Then read the commentary of Muslim feminist Irshad Manji, "Bhutto Failed to Modernize Pakistan". Manji criticizes Bhutto for not repealing the Hudood Ordinances. The International Museum of Women also provides an online exhibition, "Benazir Bhutto and Beyond", with contrasting views on women's political participation in Pakistan today. Finally, have students learn more about the remote and lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. What cultural norms in that region would be resistant to changes that would enhance the rights of women? Students should then write an analysis of why they think she made progress in some areas but not in others.

  3. Read Daughter of Destiny: An Autobiography, in which Bhutto details her life up to her first election as prime minister in 1988. Ask students to identify the experiences, influences, and challenges that Bhutto identifies as formative. For example, what lessons did she learn from her father? How did her education and background inform her politics? How did she view her role in Muslim society? How prepared was she to lead a country like Pakistan?

  4. Study the lives of other female leaders of Muslim-majority countries who were elected after Bhutto served as Prime Minister of Pakistan. Ask small student groups to research the personal histories and achievements of Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, and Tansu Çiller of Turkey. Or, students could choose a contemporary female leader from the United States or another Western country. Groups should then use Venn diagrams to note similarities and differences between the leader they studied and Benazir Bhutto.

  5. Demonstrate that laws said to be "Muslim" vary from one context to another. Have students research and analyze examples of Islamic law that have been interpreted differently in various times and places based on political leadership and cultural traditions. What specific factors could account for these variations? How have these laws been reformed? How should they be reformed? Examples related to women's rights could include laws on issues such as the education of women, modesty, divorce, inheritance, gender roles, segregation, arranged marriage, and polygamy. Related resources online include The Quran, the Role of Women, and a 2011 report addressing Muslim family laws and practices that discriminate against women in various countries.

  6. Explore how the way women dress relates to freedom and oppression. Display "An Illustrated Guide to Islamic Veils" and explain that in Pakistan, the use of burqa has declined over time. It is now primarily worn in rural areas in and near the Northwest Frontier Province. In other areas, women usually wear the chador – a long scarf that is draped and wrapped around the head. Have students then research and bring in examples of how Muslim and Western women are represented in the media of several countries and then compare and contrast their manner of dress. Discuss if/how the images vary based on the country and media source. Then focus on whose garb provides women with the most freedom and why. Deepen the conversation by reading "Burka Ban in France, Feminism and Women Enslavement" and "Behind the Veil Lives a Thriving Muslim Sexuality". Students should then organize their images and summarize the freedom and/or oppression represented in each style of dress in a VoiceThread audio slideshow and have at least five friends comment with their reactions.

  7. Compare the practice of "honor killings" with violence against women in the United States. Have small student groups read and discuss the articles "Thousands of Women Killed for Family 'Honor'" and "Study Finds Honor Killings a Major Portion of Pakistan's Homicides", the latter of which is based on the study, "The Epidemiological Patterns of Honour Killing of Women in Pakistan". Talk about where and why women are killed by family members and how such crimes are considered excusable or understandable. Then review "Domestic Violence Facts", a fact sheet about crimes against women in the United States. What are the similarities and differences between these types of violence and honor killings? Have students then research what they can do to stop violence against women and take action.

  • Film module:
    Benazir Bhutto: First Woman Leader of a Muslim Nation
  • Film module:
    History of Pakistan
Download lesson materials