Benazir Bhutto and the Struggle for Democracy in Pakistan

From Women and Girls Lead, Volume 1 collection, lesson plan 2 of 6

Grade Levels: 9-12, College

Estimated Time Needed: Two 50-minute class periods

Purpose of the Lesson: Students will investigate Pakistan’s struggle to maintain a lasting democratic government. In particular, they will study the life of Benazir Bhutto, the first woman in Pakistan to be elected Prime Minister. Students will look at various experiences in her life that shaped her as a leader, and will identify ways that she was a champion of democracy in Pakistan.


Students will:

  • Infer how positive relations between the United States and Pakistan serves the interests of both countries;
  • Discuss factors in the life of Benazir Bhutto that shaped her political philosophy and career;
  • apply knowledge of Benazir Bhutto and her commitment to democracy in Pakistan by participating in a role-playing activity.


  • Political map of Pakistan and the surrounding region
  • Equipment to show the film modules to the class film modules
  • Film modules: History of Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto and the Struggle for Democracy in Pakistan (length: 3:38 and 7:04)
  • Student Handout: Viewing Guide

Writer: 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 political map of Pakistan and the surrounding region. Ask students to examine the map, think about what they already know about Pakistan, and infer how positive relations with that country could serve U.S. interests. (Student responses will vary, but could include Pakistan’s geographic proximity to Afghanistan, India, Iran, and China; Pakistan's promises to help the United States fight al-Qaeda; Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons; etc.) Record student ideas on the board.

  2. Show the brief video History of Pakistan (length: 3:38). Focus student viewing by asking them to watch for reasons why good relations with the United States could serve Pakistan’s interests. (Students may point out, for example, that the United States has sent more than fifteen billion dollars to Pakistan since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.) Record these ideas on the board as well.

  3. Explain that the relationship between the United States and Pakistan has had its ups and downs, and that while the United States philosophically favors democratic governments, it has at times damaged the growth of democracy in Pakistan by supporting military dictators when it suited U.S. interests to do so. Within Pakistan, however, there have been periodic efforts to establish a stronger democratic political tradition. One advocate for democracy was Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to be elected Prime Minister of Pakistan.

  4. Give each student a copy of the Viewing Guide. Review the questions in the guide to focus student viewing and then show the video Benazir Bhutto and the Struggle for Democracy in Pakistan (length: 7:04).

  5. After watching the film clip, discuss the questions in the Viewing Guide, emphasizing the life experiences that developed Benazir Bhutto’s political perspective and any evidence of her being a champion of democracy in Pakistan.

  6. Tell students that, like her father, Benazir Bhutto was forced from her position as Prime Minister before the terms for which she was elected to serve were complete. She was campaigning for a third term in 2007 when she was assassinated, demonstrating that the struggle to establish a lasting democratic tradition in Pakistan is ongoing.

  7. Have students apply their knowledge of Benazir Bhutto and her commitment to democracy in Pakistan by participating in a role-playing activity. Student pairs will simulate a news interview in which Bhutto reacts to survey data on Pakistani attitudes toward democracy and addresses how those opinions could affect the struggle for democracy in her country. One student in each pair will play the role of the journalist, and the other will play Bhutto. They should reference the survey data in the "Views of Democracy" table in the "Support for Democracy" section of a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.

  8. Give students an example of the type of news interview their role-play is based on by showing them part of journalist Gwen Ifill’s discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the results of an education survey. Students may also find it informative to watch parts of an actual interview with Bhutto and to conduct additional research as needed to help them gather ideas for potential questions and answers.

  9. Have student pairs watch the interview of another pair and rate their work using a role-play rubric.

  1. Examine Bhutto’s views of moderate versus extremist Islam by having advanced or college-level students read chapter two of the book Bhutto completed just before her assassination in 2007: Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West. Ask students to summarize the main points of Bhutto’s argument that Islam is a tolerant religion compatible with democracy. Conducting additional research as needed, students should then analyze in writing how one of the following people might respond to Bhutto’s perspective: an American Christian, an Israeli Jew, a Pakistani ulema, or an Indian Hindu.

  2. Analyze Benazir Bhutto’s explanation for the growth of Islamic extremism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Have student pairs read a 2001 Frontline interview with Bhutto and recap her ideas about who is responsible for this problem. What steps does she say her government took to address the issue? In her view, what are the obstacles to reversing this trend? Why does she think that Islamic extremism is harmful to the growth of democracy in Pakistan? Organize Bhutto’s points into a speech that she could have used to rally support for candidates of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

  3. Debate the question, should the United States continue to send aid to Pakistan? Begin by having students review the history of relations between these two countries using the Bhutto timeline, "A Timeline of U.S. Aid to Pakistan", and discussion of the subject since the death of Osama bin Laden. Review why Pakistan is an important strategic partner for the United States (e.g., geographic proximity to Afghanistan, India, Iran, and China; military strength/nuclear arsenal). Then have students research and prepare arguments on the debate question in small groups.

  4. Conduct an in-depth study of the conflicts that have influenced Pakistan’s history. Have student groups choose one of the following to research: the Partition of India and Pakistan, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, or the border wars between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instruct students to include several information sources in their research and to note discrepancies in how the conflicts are portrayed in each source. Why might the historical account of the conflicts vary based on the media outlet/information source used? Then, have groups use Google’s MyMaps tool to annotate a customized class map that puts each group’s conflict in its geographic context. Discuss how Pakistan’s location has influenced its large investment in its military and its nuclear program.

  5. Evaluate how democratic elections are in Pakistan. First, work with students to study the lecture "What is Democracy?" and develop a rubric for assessing the democratic qualities of an election. Next, watch "Vote for Benazir’s Blood", a short film (length: 11:30) that follows a female politician running for Parliament in the province of Punjab just weeks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Then, examine the map "Pakistan’s Electoral Politics". Which provinces have the most political influence? Why? What roles do social position and literacy play in Pakistani elections? To what degree do students think that the needs of all Pakistanis will be represented by their elected officials? Students should also research information about the role of the media in Pakistan’s elections, such as the 2008 article "Pakistan Imposes Curbs on TV Media, Hampering Election Coverage". Have students complete their rubric based on what they have seen and read. Then, do the same for an election in the United States and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each country.

  6. Create a diagram of Pakistan’s government. Direct students to a government profile and a description of the government structure, then have them create and annotate a simple drawing that illustrates the roles of the President and Prime Minister, as well as their relationships with the other branches of government. Do the same for another country and then compare and contrast the systems.

  • Film module:
    Benazir Bhutto and the Struggle for Democracy in Pakistan
  • Film module:
    History of Pakistan
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