Maryam Nawaz: Will she be on the right side of history?

As Pakistan enters its winter of discontent, yet again, Maryam Nawaz has emerged as a front-ranking leader in a male bastion, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Oct 23, 2020

Three decades after former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto began and a dozen years after her  assassination on December 17, 2007, Maryam Nawaz has emerged as another woman resolutely fighting to protect her ousted and exiled father, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s legacy.

Maryam Nawaz conforms to the South Asian tradition of women politicos born in the crucible of countering tyranny and injustice. With few exceptions, they come from privileged classes, but that doesn’t always reduce their woes, and one of them being born in a patriarchal society.

Most of them have belonged to political oligarchies - India’s Nehru-Gandhis, Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia and Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga's, besides Pakistan’s Benazir.

Maryam also belongs to an oligarchy, as oligarchies go in South Asia, where traditionally, at least one child joins a parent’s profession. She has surged past her brothers and cousins. This is unlike in the Muslim world. But then, Benazir was the world’s first democratically elected Muslim woman.   

Compared to Benazir Bhutto

Maryam is often compared with Benazir. Belonging to a rival party, Maryam once said: “I have a lot of respect for the lady, but … the only thing which is common between us is gender.”

She would rather carry her father’s legacy in her own distinct way, the way Bilawal Bhutto, coached by father Asif Zardari and is carrying his mother’s legacy.

In rare solidarity, Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris are part of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), opposing Prime Minister Imran Khan. Keeping much of the opposition glued together is Khan’s unrelenting campaign in the name of corruption even as scandals are tumbling out of their own cupboard.

As Pakistan enters its winter of discontent, yet again, Maryam Nawaz has emerged as a front-ranking leader in a male bastion. But her task is both formidable and risky after Nawaz accused, not just the all-powerful army that has never been attacked thus, but also its current Chief, Gen. Javed Bajwa, of working to oust him, through a Supreme Court verdict and then ‘engineering’ elections to ‘select’ Imran Khan.

Whether or not one accepts the father-daughter line, the situation is complicated. The army, not directly in power, has a democratic ‘proxy.’ It’s different from Fatima Jinnah, the younger sister of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder and first governor-general of Pakistan, contesting an election against Ayub Khan (Pakistani army general and the second president of Pakistan who forcibly assumed the presidency from the first president through a coup in 1958), or Benazir fighting Ziaul Haq (former army chief and president) and later Pervez Musharraf (former military chief and president), all incumbent rulers.

Taking on Imran Khan

Imran Khan has been accused of using money-muscle-media power to counter attacks, which he is doing even as he clings close to the military. Unsurprisingly, others in the PDM have cushioned the army while attacking Khan. The unstated thing is that, if cornered, the army could opt for another ‘proxy.’

Following Nawaz’s anti-army broadside, the Imran Khan government has sent its third request to the British to deport him. London has curbed Altaf Hussain, the exiled Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader, but after long years of probe and litigation, there is nothing to show why the UK would facilitate Nawaz’s early deportation, and this seems to fit into his strategy.

But battling on ground zero, Maryam’s problems multiply as she has been jailed and bailed out in several graft cases and can be imprisoned again any day. Her echoing her father’s accusations, even if diluted, could itself qualify her for detention. While her father is away, she is a sitting duck.

She is a family person who has to maintain a respectful distance from men - her politico cousins and her seniors, but most certainly, uncle Shahbaz Sharif, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) chief who. going by reports, is ‘soft’ on the military.

Maryam stands out for directness in what she says. Political decisions should be taken in Parliament, not Army HQ, she said while attacking the army for convening a politicians’ meeting to discuss Gilgit-Baltistan, an administrative issue the government should have tackled.

She dared the government to arrest her at a presser attended by other opposition leaders. Earlier, she had said that uncle Shahbaaz was arrested because he stood by Nawaz.

Husband's midnight arrest 

Her husband. Captain Safdar’s dramatic midnight arrest and release after she addressed the Karachi rally, involving the Sindh Police and government of her allies and the fracas that prompted Gen. Bajwa to order an inquiry, are all illustrative of the obstacles ahead. More than anyone, they put Maryam on a test. On Tuesday, the PML (N) vice-president was booked with 2,000 party members from Lahore for holding an anti-government rally, organised by PDM, where she called Imran Khan a “coward, selected and puppet” who hides behind the Army. 

“This path is very difficult but as Maryam Nawaz what is important to me is that I am standing on the right side of history,” she said in an interview last year.

Only time will tell whether she is on the right side of history or not!

(The writer is  President, Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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