SHEHRBANO TASEER  - Maryam Nawaz Sharif doesn’t like to admit it, but she’s her father’s favourite. When she speaks about him, she turns girly. “His legacy is beautiful,” says the 38-year-old. “Who would not want to step into those shoes?” Finally stepping into politics some months ago, it is Maryam Sharif, not her cousin Hamza or either of her brothers (who live abroad), who is now the presumed future leader of her father’s party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the second largest bloc in the National Assembly and which governs the Punjab.

“He gives us all equal attention,” she says about her father, Nawaz Sharif, and the former prime minister’s relationships with his three children. “But I suppose I am the closest to him.” Maryam Sharif has been preparing for a political role all her life. She’s completing her PhD on post-9/11 radicalisation in Pakistan, she’s fluent in four languages (including Arabic), chairs the family’s charity organisations, and devours post-colonial lit from the likes of Achebe and the revolutionary verse of Faiz. On her bedside table, the selected works of Francis Bacon (‘my sagacious counsel’) and a couple of Cosmo magazines.

As part of her political rollout, Maryam Sharif has been touring schools and colleges—giving speeches on education and women’s rights that she writes herself. Her back story is familiar, and fascinating. A year after her father’s government was ousted by Gen Pervez Musharraf on Oct 12, 1999, Sharif and 22 members of her family went into exile in Saudi Arabia. The exile would last seven years. Musharraf wrote in his autobiography, In the Line of Fire, that the military courts spared Nawaz Sharif’s life because of pressure from the Saudi monarch.

“It was a tough time,” says Maryam Sharif. “I found some solace when I visited holy places, but the yearning for the homeland never abated.” She says she did not allow exile to embitter her and used the time to pick up strength from adversity. “Only the sufferer knows what the suffering means,” she says. “All these experiences have shaped a new Maryam, I call it my rebirth.” Sharif takes some pleasure in the fact that Musharraf has been unable to end his own four-year-long self-exile from Pakistan, cancelling his January arrival after the Army refused him support in managing parties (the PML-N, judiciary, media) looking to settle scores with him. “What goes around comes around,” she says. “The man who once said Nawaz Sharif and his party were history, and would never be allowed to return, himself had to leave the country. Let’s call it divine retribution.”

Musharraf’s coup had thrust Maryam Sharif and especially her mother, Kalsoom, into the spotlight. With almost all the Sharif men in jail, the former first lady took over the reins of the PML-N, leading defiant, lonely protests against the Musharraf regime. Soon enough, both mother and daughter were placed under house arrest. When they gained their freedom four months later, they were running from prison to prison, hearing haplessly the charges of corruption, terrorism and tax evasion against Nawaz Sharif. “She dauntlessly challenged the usurper when a lot of men backed out,” says Maryam Sharif of her mother. “She’s contributed famously to my father’s life and to democracy in Pakistan.”

The PML-N came back as a political force in the 2008 elections and has been roundly criticised for appearing to be soft on terrorists and sectarian groups and for failing to revive the Punjab economy. But Maryam Sharif champions minorities’ rights, disapproves of politicians fraternising with banned militant organisations (“I do not endorse this at all”), and she wants any organisation that violates the law to be “strictly dealt with.” She says: “There is no place for extremism and militancy in Islam.”

Like her father, Maryam speaks passionately about the sins of military dictators. And she resents President Asif Ali Zardari’s criticism that Sharif the Elder is a legatee of Gen Ziaul Haq. “If someone aspiring to venture into politics waited for despotic rules to be over, he would have never made it,” she says, alluding to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. “Every politician was at one time or the other a protégé of those who have been calling the shots in Pakistan.” The PML-N is no establishment party, she says. “We not only learnt our lesson the hard way but paid a very heavy price for it.”

She is also angry with Musharraf for drafting Pakistan in the US-led war on terror. “Since General Musharraf enjoyed no legitimacy at home and no credibility abroad, he was desperate to make up for these shortcomings by handing over the country to the Americans,” she says. “In the process he gained a lot, but where did it leave the country? Thousands of Pakistanis have lost their lives, entire villages have been laid to waste, and the scourge of militancy and terrorism are deeply afflicting the country.” Sharif states emphatically that the war on terror is not Pakistan’s war. She is also skeptical about some US claims: “Do you think Osama bin Laden is dead? I am not so sure.”

Her party’s views on the war on terror are similar to those articulated by Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, but Sharif does not like the comparison: “I don’t think it’s fair to compare the PML-N with a party whose past, present and future all are murky,” she says. Pakistan cannot afford a leader who will train on the job, she says, so choosing Khan in the polls would be a ‘childish adventure.’ She is suspicious about the PTI’s ‘overnight fame’ and believes the party’s rise is being facilitated by “the people who call the shots.” She asks: “Where is the money coming from? Where is this all being designed?”

She’s equally unimpressed by the numbers turning out to see Khan at rallies and the politicians defecting to his side. “He has the scum of the earth with him,” she says, “all the turncoats, all the notorious people.” PML-N lost one of its vice presidents, Javed Hashmi, to the PTI. “Mr Khan saw him as a potential and gullible prey,” she says of Hashmi, “but I had still expected Javed Hashmi to have exerted better political acumen and discernment.” The Hashmi betrayal has hit a nerve.

She’s studied Khan’s latest book, Pakistan: A Personal History, to better know the enemy. “He is a man without substance, and I don’t think he means well,” she says, coolly. “In a country like Pakistan, how can he support sheriff elections?” Sharif is confident Khan has peaked: “The PTI bubble is bursting now.” She attributes this alleged stemming of the PTI tide to mainstream and social media scrutiny of candidate Khan. “People are getting very savvy and aware, no subject is taboo anymore,” she says, adding that an alliance between the security establishment and any political party will only backfire.

The possible dawning that Khan may not be able to wipe out mainstream parties like the PML-N in the next elections is leading his fans on social media to resort to desperate means, feels Sharif. “People can differ. Look at you and me, we don’t have similar views, but one should differ with grace,” she says. Of Khan’s followers on Twitter, she says: “It’s very bad, just look at their language. His followers make personal attacks. But I always say, ‘like leader, like follower.’ If this is the change he will bring then we are better off without it.”

Maryam Sharif’s foray into politics comes at a particularly unique time for women in Pakistan. The speaker of the National Assembly, the foreign minister, the information minister, the ambassador to the US, and the acting defence secretary are all women. Sharif recognises the fact that right now is a bit of a renaissance for women in power. She says she likes Speaker Fehmida Mirza, Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan (“I like her, I like her crudeness!”), and the foreign minister. “I walked up to her because I admired her,” says Sharif of Hina Rabbani Khar. “This was after the Birkin-gate campaign. I think we need well-dressed people.” She says Khar got a raw deal for carrying expensive accessories. “I like wearing good clothes and jewellery, I don’t see it as a negative point.”

In many ways, Sharif’s PML-N is far behind the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and its ally Muttahida Qaumi Movement in wooing women voters, who constitute at least 43 per cent of Pakistan’s 83.28 million registered voters. The MQM’s women’s empowerment rally last month in Karachi was the world’s largest all-women gathering, according to the BBC. And the federal government has passed a raft of new laws to protect women from acid crimes, harassment at the workplace, honour killings, forced marriage.

Maryam could be a signal of the PML-N’s renewed commitment to women’s rights and causes. On March 8, her uncle Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif introduced the Punjab Women Empowerment Package 2012 as a response to keep up with the PPP-led government in Islamabad. The PML-N-led Punjab government wants to see more women in public service through affirmative action, daycare facilities for working mothers, low-interest loans to entrepreneurs, more schools. Maryam worked with other PML-N officers on the package as well as on the women-only Pink Bus scheme recently launched in the Punjab.

“Women are equal partners,” says Maryam Sharif, “but they are seldom given opportunities to prove their worth.” She’s concerned in particular about low school enrolment and high infant mortality rates. She’s working with the Punjab government on addressing these and on other reforms for women, including introducing a women’s help desk at police stations in the province, promoting the Pink Ribbon breast cancer awareness campaign, and schooling men. “We need to educate our men about the true spirit of Islam,” she says, “Their lack of education leads them to suppress women.”

For the last 15 years, she has been managing the Sharif Trust and the family’s philanthropic initiatives, which include a hospital, schools, and colleges. She is excited about becoming a working politician. She wants to work on bills for Balochistan, across-the-board accountability, transparency in the wealth declarations of elected officials, affirmative action for women in the public sector, and improvement in Parliamentary performance through emphasis on research.

She remembers Benazir Bhutto, whom she met only once, during the Charter of Democracy days in Jeddah, fondly. “We spoke our hearts out to each other for three hours,” she says. When she learnt of Bhutto’s assassination on Dec 27, 2007, she broke into tears. “My whole family was crying.” Sharif has a soft corner for the Bhutto-Zardari children. When Zardari fell ill last December and was ferried to Dubai for treatment, she prayed for his health. “Forget politics, his children need him,” she said at a public address.

Sharif also regrets the fact that her party and Zardari’s could not sustain their brief coalition in Islamabad. “We walked out of the coalition with a heavy heart and Pakistan lost a golden chance, once again,” she says. The end of the coalition was inevitable because the PPP had refused to restore the judges sacked by Musharraf. “We put the interests of Pakistan and democracy above our own,” she says. “Nawaz Sharif was not being a friend of the PPP; he was being a friend of Pakistan.”

Will she contest the upcoming elections? “This will be the party’s decision. If they see me as a candidate with potential then I will be happy, but there is a world beyond the assemblies as well,” she says, speaking very much like a candidate. “Let’s see what destiny holds for me.” At the same time, she feels corseted by politics and that familiar burden of expectations. “I want to say things at times but I can’t because it’s against the norms. That’s very frustrating. But, Inshallah, the change will come.” Sharif says she doesn’t venture out much unless it’s for the PML-N. “We live so far away from everyone else anyway,” she says, referring to the Sharif estate in Lahore’s Raiwind. “Personally, it takes me long to repose my trust in people, but I can see myself gradually overcoming and conquering distrust.”

Maryam is a courteous hostess, keen to know how I’m doing and if I’ve enjoyed my meal. Interview over, she walks me to my car. “You really did not leave any stone unturned,” she says, laughing. “Do you think two hours is enough time to get to know a person?” As a working politician and PML-N heir apparent, there will be a lot more than just two hours for Pakistan to truly gauge her.

           (Courtesy Newsweek)