No longer a dowdy princess, Maryam Nawaz Sharif is now a graceful politician with improved Urdu diction and sharper clothes. She is on the front line.
Imran Khan called her the “Mughal princess”, and his army of trolls called her the “corrupt daughter”. But now, Maryam Nawaz Sharif is the face of true change in Pakistan. She is ironically the ‘Naya Pakistan’, to borrow from Imran Khan’s slogan.
From a pampered princess who was mostly known for attending a prestigious convent school in Murree, marrying young and demurely smiling in the shadows, Maryam has become the symbol of resistance against the deep state in Pakistan.
She is abused by some Pakistanis as the ‘thief’ who ‘looted’ the nation’s wealth, who wore Gucci slippers to jail and bought shampoo from Abu Dhabi airport. Perhaps the trolls have a reason to be angry at a bourgeois family who they blame for all of the country’s ills. But despite the vitriol and the naked display of resentment against the Sharifs by some, Maryam has changed the narrative completely. Along with the thrice ousted PM Nawaz Sharif, his heir apparent presented herself for arrest in Lahore and is now in Adiala Jail, Rawalpindi.
Lahore, the seat of Sharifs’ power, and the city where Maryam grew up is where the father and daughter landed from England to “face the law” as she said in an emotional video circulated to supporters who swarmed the streets.
In recent years, Maryam went through a makeover from her previous image as a dowdy princess to a graceful politician. While she was always her father’s champion, her public debut as a leader coincided with her personal transformation. She improved her Urdu diction, shed her mummy-type look and accent, lost weight and dressed sharper. Now she is on the front line.
When she addressed the media in the UK, Maryam spoke confidently. In Pakistan, she presented herself for arrest wearing a smile and a dupatta on her head.
She has, over time, also changed her father’s party – gently nudging it away from its earlier right-wing politics toward a centrist and liberal direction. She did this quietly, as she stood by Nawaz’s side, addressing jalsas. From a PM who had introduced a law where a man could forgive his son if he killed his daughter (famously known as the Diyat laws), Nawaz had become a champion of democratic values. He called Pakistan’s persecuted minorities, the Ahmadis, his brothers and distanced himself from provocative and hate-filled comments of others. During his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) tenure, they passed a bill where no family member could forgive honour killers. From being a Zia protégé, Nawaz became a rebel with a cause. And it was Maryam who held his hand and led him to a historic point in Pakistan.
Since 2013, she had been fully active in the PML-N’s politics. Her presence on Twitter grew as she responded with grace and warmth to both appreciation and criticism. She was appointed the head of a youth programme but had to resign after a court order deemed it illegal. The establishment was on to her – and did not want her anywhere near the seat of power.
As the Rangers surrounded her and her father on July 13, 2018, and refused to allow them a medical doctor, I could have laughed and called it karma and retweeted a photo of a celebratory cake that appeared on my Twitter timeline.
There was a time when the police had come looking for a family member of mine for his political affiliations in Karachi. This was when Nawaz Sharif was the Prime Minister. The state-sanctioned chaos and police brutality continued even when Benazir Bhutto became the PM.
But I couldn’t laugh as I watched the father and daughter. I clasped my jaw in horror and saw another cycle of political victimisation, this time at those who had been the most powerful, the most privileged.
Maryam receives multiple rape, abusive and venomous threats from her opponents. They even taunt her for marrying a man of her choice. Her detractors, mostly from Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party, attack her character and photoshop her photos over images of animals and other questionable forms.
Imran Khan’s own attitude towards feminism and the treatment of women is well-documented. His party, which positions itself as a party of change and betterment, decries Western feminism. Maryam is paying the price that women must pay for being in the public eye in this part of the world. They face the hate and naked misogyny just because they are women.
Yet she returned.
Political earthquakes can work in mysterious ways. Imran was all set to win a ‘moral’ victory and march to the PM house. His party had celebrated the decline of Nawaz Sharif and his corrupt family. Analysts had written off the Sharifs after the Panama Papers and Calibri Gate and the court giving ten years to Nawaz and seven to Maryam over what many commentators call a ‘judicial coup’. I expected her, a sheltered daughter who had lived a fairly comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, to quietly fade away into the shadows.
Many outraged at the idea of comparing her to the dynamic Benazir Bhutto, insisting that Maryam was no leader and no inspiration to the millions and that she couldn’t stand a chance against the upcoming swell of public favour for Imran Khan.
But now as Maryam faces the seven years in jail, burnt at the altar of political victimisation, she is being lauded as ‘lion-hearted’. In a handwritten letter, she has refused any additional facilities at Adiala jail. As soon as she returns to the public sphere, she will be the hero: rising from the ashes of hate and targeted misogyny. She may well become the face of a new progressive Pakistan.
The author is a liberal, feminist journalist, YouTuber, Supermom & biryani connoisseur in Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @mahwashajaz_