She was married to Ziaur Rahman, then a captain in the Pakistan army, in August 1960. Ziaur Rahman later broke away from the Pakistan army to join the pro-independence forces of Bangladesh on March 25, 1971. After her husband’s assassination in 1981, his party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), chose Zia as the president on March 10, 1984.
In the 1991 election the BNP received a massive mandate, securing an absolute majority, and Zia began her tenure as Bangladesh’s first female prime minister (1991–96). During her first tenure she brought about major educational changes by mandating free and compulsory education for girls. She introduced incentives such as stipends for young female students and revitalized the economy by taking poverty alleviation measures.
Zia became prime minister for the second consecutive term when the BNP scored a landslide victory in the February 1996 general election. During her second term she increased the age limit for entry into government service to 30 years of age.
She also made efforts to safeguard the traditional and cultural identity of underdeveloped hill and tribal people of Bangladesh by providing them with employment opportunities, education, and other facilities to improve their standard of living.
She was elected prime minister for the third time in October 2001, when she led a four-party alliance to win a two-thirds majority in the parliamentary poll, but was deposed in 2007.
In foreign affairs she promoted regional cooperation with Bangladesh’s South Asian neighbors, including India. She also actively supported United Nations peacekeeping efforts.
On the environment she took measures for planned usage of water resources, prevention of erosion of riverbanks, and maintaining ecological balance through conservation of forests. In local government and people’s empowerment she decentralized the power at the village, union, district, and subdistrict levels through a four-tier, autonomous, and democratic local self-governance.