Maryam Nawaz is the true image of tolerant Pakistan where women can break moulds.
Apart from a glimpse at her mother’s funeral over a month ago, there has been not a whimper from Maryam Nawaz Sharif since her arrest July this year. No new pictures. No tweets. No public appearances.
I made some discreet enquiries. She is not in touch with anyone. Phones are switched off. No information on what her game plan is. Pakistanis expected her to reappear publicly after the traditional 40 days mourning period, but she didn’t.
And now, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has issued notices to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam in a petition to put them back in prison.
Many Pakistanis are waiting impatiently for Maryam Nawaz’s political journey to take off. But in many ways, it has been brewing for long.
One of the first things I noticed as I landed in Pakistan back in 2012 was the image of a stunning lady on posters around the country. Perfectly styled curls framed the flawless face and confident eyes stared back from under exceptionally long eyelashes. Intrigued, I enquired if she was a TV or movie celebrity. I was informed she was PML(N) leader Nawaz Sharif’s daughter.
I had been away from Pakistan since the early 1990s. Coming from a Muslim League family myself, I had seen a very different image of the women of the Sharif family. I had seen late Kulsoom Nawaz in the post-Zia era in a tightly wrapped dupatta with no hair showing. My hometown of Mansehra district favoured the Sharifs because he represented a Right-wing party.
These new images of the PML(N) leader’s daughter was a clear departure from their conservative stance of the 1990s. In the run-up to the 2013 elections, I met Maryam Nawaz in person. She was very different from the privileged ladies of the political elite I had met so far. Brisk and blunt, she was no time waster. And her party’s stance was moving more to the centre.
By February 2016, the PML(N) government first passed the women’s protection bill in Punjab and proceeded with the controversial execution of Salman Taseer’s assassin Mumtaz Qadri. Many, like myself, assumed that this liberal bold politics was here to stay. It was paving the way for the party leadership to be handed to Maryam Nawaz. I witnessed the unease of the uncles in the party and in the media firsthand.
Earlier in Sep 2015, I watched Maryam Nawaz, the First Daughter join hands with US First Lady Michelle Obama on promoting girls’ education in Pakistan. Child activists like me whooped for joy when the education budget was increased to 4 per cent of the GDP.
By the summer of 2016, Maryam Nawaz held court while the PM recovered in London from an open-heart surgery. But later, Dawn Leaks was linked to this woman, who inspired hate in the Right wingers of her own party, the opposition, the military establishment and even the liberal elite of Islamabad and Lahore.
I understood why the politicians resented her, but people who have never met her coined the nickname ‘Pharoah’ for her. It exposed an unfounded hatred towards a woman. Her gravest sin was to have been born in the home of the three-time PM, in a subcontinental culture where political dynasties are common.
The summer of 2017, however, gave us the first glimpse of the stuff she was made off. She raised her finger and with eyes glinting with rage, she said, “Rok sako toh rok lo (Stop me if you can)”. She became more and more defiant as the swords were drawn around her. The more they pointed at her, the louder she roared back. The PML(N) had finally found a leader with qualities of their mascot, the lion.
She was becoming the face of the modern Pakistani woman who was not going to be silenced. Maryam Nawaz was all set to take us into the year 2018.
In conversations with die-hard fans of the late Benazir Bhutto, like senior journalist Marvi Sirmed, I noticed a softening towards the PML(N). She recalls how the top tier Begums of PML(N) in the 1990s telling Benazir Bhutto to “sit at home, now that she is pregnant”. But Maryam Nawaz had set her heart on following the footsteps of her father’s arch rival.
A family friend reports that it took years for Maryam to convince her family to let her enter politics and finally it was her uncle Shehbaz Sharif who gave her permission. Like many of us, Maryam also grew up being inspired by Benazir Bhutto as the first Muslim woman PM.
Maryam Nawaz married a man of her choice at 19, had three children and went back to focus on her education as a young mother. Ironically, the party of change PTI has hurled abuses at her for marrying a man she fell in love with.
The fact that she has remained calm and unfazed by the threats and derogatory comments shows great strength of character and has inspired respect in the opposition ranks too. She is the only politician in Pakistan who has not been helped along by the military establishment. This is a medal of honour, not even her own father and uncle can claim for themselves, and certainly not the newly installed PM.
She has campaigned for her cousin, her father and most recently her ailing mother – but has never held political office or run a business. In the Panama scandal as well, if we are to believe that the money trail is not kosher, it appears that her troubles are a result of being born into a political dynasty.
If anything, the credit for dragging her into the political arena goes to the very people who wanted to get rid of Maryam Nawaz so desperately. It is them and not her father who launched her in the political landscape.
With the ‘Mujhe kyun nikala’ slogan dominating her political rhetoric we still don’t know what her views are on foreign policy or domestic affairs. All we know so far is that Maryam Nawaz is the only true anti-military establishment politician we have seen emerge from Pakistan in the last 70 years.
In a country where being a good woman has meant being the perfectly subservient daughter and wife, women like Maryam are a role model for young girls and a true image of tolerant modern Pakistan where women can dare to break the mould.
The time has come for this change. Just like the PML(N), Pakistan has changed too. This is no longer Zia’s Pakistan, even though the dark forces want to drag us back there with publicly exaggerated religious facades of their new favourites.
Reham Khan is a journalist, child rights activist, and single parent in Pakistan. She authored ‘Reham Khan’, an autobiography.
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