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Pakistan: Who is Maryam Nawaz?

October 25, 2020

The daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken on the powerful Pakistani military for its alleged interference in politics, drawing hundreds of thousands to ongoing rallies against Imran Khan's government.

Maryam Nawaz addresses a rally in Gujranwala city on October 16
Image: Stringer/Reuters

Muhammad Safdar, a leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party, was recently arrested at his hotel in the southern city of Karachi. Safdar's wife, Maryam Nawaz, blamed the country's military establishment for it. "We all know who hates the 'honor the vote' slogan," she remarked, in a veiled reference to her country's military generals.

Maryam is one of the few female politicians in the heavily male-dominated profession in the country. She is also at the forefront of a nationwide opposition movement to oust Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came to power in a controversial election in 2018. 

Together with her father, the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, she has maintained that the military conspired against their government by framing them in corruption cases and installing Khan through a rigged election.

Read more: Pakistan ex-PM accuses army chief of toppling government

"General Qamar Javed Bajwa, you packed up our government, which was working well, and put the nation and the country at the altar of your wishes," Sharif told his supporters at a massive opposition rally in Gujranwala city on October 16.

"General Bajwa is responsible for rigging the 2018 elections, curbs on the media, abduction of journalists and forcing judges to give decisions of his choice," he added.

Read more: Amid civilian-military conflict, does Pakistan need a new social contract?

Pakistan military accused of interference

A defiant voice

Earlier this month, Pakistani police filed sedition charges against Sharif, his daughter and dozens of the PML-N his party leaders over comments they made against the alleged unconstitutional role of the military.

"We will ensure a court trial against the accused," government official Musarrat Cheema told Reuters regarding the sedition charges.

The military, which has ruled Pakistan for half of its history since independence from British rule in 1947, has denied meddling in politics or electoral interference.

Despite charges against her, Maryam has taken a defiant stance against the military and Khan. She has also been critical of the restrictions on media, abduction of journalists and harassment of political activists.

"Alhamdolillah [Thank God] that Ali Imran who went missing for 22 hours is back, but the people of Pakistan must know who abducted him and why," she tweeted on Saturday, referring to Geo TV's reporter who went missing on Friday. Rights activists have accused security agencies of "kidnapping" critical journalists, a charge Khan's government and the military deny.

Read more: Imran Khan's government is 'muffling critical voices'

"It's not just the people that are wiser now, political parties have also come a long way and they just cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the people anymore," Maryam said in a recent interview with the Khaleej Times newspaper.

Is Pakistan's media being silenced?

Political dynasties

The 47-year-old Maryam entered politics in 2012 and was put in charge of her father's election campaign in 2013. The same year, she was appointed as the chairperson of the prime minister's youth program, however she quit the post in 2014 after her appointment was challenged in a court.

In July 2018, she was sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption charges. In September 2018, the Islamabad High Court suspended her sentence.

She has drawn comparisons with Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's former prime minister, who was assassinated in an election rally in 2007. Bhutto was also critical of the military, which she had accused of targeting her family and hanging her father,  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a "fake trial" in 1979.

Like Maryam's father, Bhutto's father, too, started his political career under the tutelage of a military dictator, but then parted ways to launch a democratic movement.

"Before she was assassinated, Benazir Bhutto became close to my father and now today, Bilawal and I, their children, are going to maintain that relationship," Maryam said at a rally in Karachi on October 18.

Khan's supporters accuse the Sharifs and the Bhuttos of massive corruption and a lack of democratic culture within their own parties. They say that Khan managed to end the duopoly of the two biggest political dynasties in Pakistan.

Khan comes under pressure

On Sunday, Maryam will lead an anti-government demonstration in the western city of Quetta, the third in a series of several rallies to topple Khan's government.

"Opposition rallies will pile pressure on Khan's government," said Haroon Janjua, a DW correspondent in Islamabad. "The government is already blamed for bad governance, rising food inflation and unemployment in the country. The protests will add pressure on Khan as his popularity is already waning," he added.

Read more: Pakistan: Is PM Imran Khan's popularity waning?

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