Maryam Nawaz Sharif: ‘Mughal Princess’ or Future Pakistan PM?
Maryam Nawaz says she – as a daughter of the prime minister – is being used to punish her father.
The day Maryam Nawaz Sharif – note the name, her father’s, not her husband’s – appeared before the joint investigative team (JIT) constituted to investigate claims that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif laundered money out of the country, was no ordinary court appearance by a political leader.
For months, Pakistan has been held in thrall by the images of the rich and powerful being called to account for their perceived sins. Since last year, the Sharif family has been embroiled in a court case over London properties and offshore accounts in Panama, which chief opposition leader Imran Khan and his party say were bought through money laundered out of the country. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not named in the Panama Papers, Maryam Nawaz is one of the key links to Nawaz Sharif in the opposition’s case as his alleged dependent.
The Heir Apparent
She wore green, the country’s colour, was accompanied by a caravan of security – at least equal to, if not more than her father’s appearance last month before the same investigative team – and protocol, walked to the venue with her two brothers, her husband, her son-in-law, and a trusted lieutenant, Minister of Information Marriyum Aurangzeb.
A policewoman assigned to her saluted, then bent to pick up something that had been dropped. The clip went viral on social media, and was played ad nauseum on TV channels. This act of official deference incensed the opposition parties, provoking one lawyer to file a petition asking the policewoman to explain and apologise for daring to salute “an unelected” official.
The entire spectacle conveyed the message that Maryam Nawaz Sharif is the real power behind the throne, the heir apparent, possibly the future prime minister of the country.
Many compare her to Ivanka Trump, the other First Daughter who has an office in the White House, and, apparently, her father’s ear. Roughly true, but not quite, given the particularities of South Asian and Pakistani politics.
Where Trump uses Twitter like a toddler on a sugar high, Maryam Nawaz is her father’s measured Twitter proxy since the prime minister doesn’t use social media, promoting the government’s achievements, and her father, posting family pictures, or countering opponents. More significantly, she also runs the Strategic Media Communications Cell from the Prime Minister House, controlling the ruling party’s media strategy through mid-ranked party leaders and lieutenants. Part of that strategy is no press conferences or interviews – neither the prime minister or Maryam Nawaz have given any in the last three years.
From ‘Mughal Princess’ to ‘Daughter of the East’
This is another reason that Maryam’s appearance before the JIT is significant. But if the media was hoping for a rare opportunity to grill the First Daughter, they were dismissed with an impatient wave of her manicured hand – another video that went viral. As reporters interjected her prepared speech post-interrogation, she told them to “wait a minute”, but stalked off before she could be asked questions. In her speech, she spoke about being accountable to the people and to Allah as the first family, but declined to be questioned by the people’s medium – journalists.
Imran Khan calls her a Mughal princess, while Maryam Nawaz says she – as a daughter of the prime minister – is being used to punish her father.
“They thought my father would be pressured by using his daughter’s name,” she said. “Those who think Nawaz Sharif’s daughter is his weakness will find she is his strength.”
"Those who have no regard for daughters and family values will never understand these things," she added, in what appeared to be another attack aimed at Imran Khan. "If you are targeting me because I am Nawaz Sharif's daughter, I will fight back because I am his daughter."
Here is where the politics become very South Asian, involving the honour of daughters (the PMLN’s favourite punching bag has been Imran Khan’s illegitimate daughter Sita White, and his two divorces), family values and the treatment of women. For its media strategy, the ruling party appropriated Benazir Bhutto’s ‘Daughter of the East’ title for Maryam Nawaz, the irony being lost on the PMLN given Nawaz Sharif and the party’s personal and very gendered attacks on Benazir in the ‘90s.
Fast-forward to 20 years later, as her father’s confidant, cheerleader and advisor, Maryam Nawaz has pushed for progressive pro-women’s legislation, health and educational reforms. She represents the youth outreach of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz – a traditionally centre-right party – and a fresh approach to political messaging and policy.
New Causes, Old Traditions
In one of those paradoxes peculiar to this region, her political star is hitched to Imran Khan’s.
She rose to prominence around the time of the 2013 elections, serving as a counterweight to Imran Khan, whose party from 2011 onwards mobilised the apolitical youth and urbanised middle class. In a sense, more than Benazir’s son Bilawal, it is sexagenarian Imran Khan who is 43-year-old Maryam’s political rival, that is if she chooses to contest elections.
While many believe she is being groomed for the prime minister’s chair – not her two brothers Hussain and Hassan – she also has to contend with her uncle Shahbaz Sharif as a potential successor to Nawaz Sharif, if he is disqualified by the courts in the Panama case.
Dynastic politics may no longer be as bloodied as the monarchies of yore, but they can be tricky to negotiate. Benazir Bhutto’s hold over the People’s Party and her father’s legacy was challenged in the ‘90s, when her brother Murtaza returned from exile. He was later murdered under mysterious circumstances.
The Sharifs are not the Bhuttos, or the Gandhis, or the Kennedys. Their history is certainly less gory, or ‘cursed’. Indeed, their political survival has been associated with clever deals with the military establishment, and later, foreign powers. Maryam Nawaz Sharif may represent the next generation of Pakistani political leader in her favourite causes and media management, but the tradition she comes from is centuries old.
(Amber Shamsi is a multi-media journalist who has worked for international and national media organisations as a reporter and on the editorial desk. She currently hosts a news and current affairs show on Dawn TV. She can be reached on Twitter @AmberRShamsi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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