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Making a Political Superstar—in Prison

The appearance of suffering can do a lot to make a woman more palatable to voters—whether in Pakistan (in the recent case of Maryam Nawaz) or the United States.

Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Maryam Nawaz Sharif wore Gucci slippers to prison. They were white flats and cost about 65,000 Pakistani rupees, an exorbitant sum. They were a striking choice for someone headed to a sentence for graft—assisting in the emptying out of the Pakistan’s nearly empty coffers into the Sharifs’ rather full ones. It could have been an unthinking selection, a final hats-off to style before the surrender, but more likely it was a symbol of defiance, a deft calculation by an icon in the making.

On the afternoon of July 13, 2018, the prim daughter of thrice-deposed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, shod in her Gucci slippers, boarded a plane from Abu Dhabi to Lahore in Pakistan. Just a week earlier, a court in Pakistan convicted her father on the vague charge of owning assets beyond his known income. It also found Maryam guilty of abetting his crime, having been “instrumental” in the subterfuge that permitted her father to hide his misbegotten assets. Clearly she had taken being the dutiful daughter a bit too far; she was sentenced to a eight years in prison.

The father and daughter were at the time of the verdict in London, in the very Park Lane property that they had allegedly procured via their graft. Avenfield House is a stately place, albeit a bit less so in recent days with the ruckus of protestors who had gathered outside following the verdict. The family had gathered at the sickbed of Kulsoom Nawaz, Maryam’s mother, who had slipped into a coma following treatment for throat cancer.  She reportedly opened her eyes once when they came to bid her goodbye.

The fate of women running for political office is tricky in the unruly moment in which the world finds itself. America is still reeling from its own struggle of disentangling misogyny from political liability, deciding which parts of which affected the fate of Hillary Clinton. It is still impossible to tell how many refused to vote for her just because she is a woman and how many because they were concerned about the accusations against her. The protestors outside Avenfield House may not have been chanting “Lock Her Up,” but some of their accusations were similar, as were the charges. She had been corrupt, she didn’t care about common people, she was disconnected from the lives of real Pakistanis—these have long being thrown around as reasons to oppose Maryam Nawaz. Since July 6, when the verdict was announced, a new one was added: she would never leave London, she would never come home to go to jail.

She did return. Etihad Airlines flight 243, the plane carrying the duo, entered Pakistani airspace sometime after 8:00 pm Pakistan time on July 18, 2018. Cell phone service and even internet service in Lahore had been suspended for its arrival, and Section 144, a legal provision that permits the Government to suspend the right of assembly, had been deployed in the area around the airport.

Pakistani news channels and their anchors reported the flight’s arrival with glee, emphasizing that its passengers were now subject to Pakistani law; there was no chance now for Maryam and her father to escape being locked up. When the plane did land it was escorted to a separate area away from the terminal and jet bridges of usual arrivals. All the passengers of the flight were vacated and then, finally, Maryam Nawaz Sharif emerged, looking un-harried and un-worried as she descended the staircase into a sea of men waiting to arrest her. 

Maryam Nawaz has been fighting long before this moment, arguing that the charges are trumped up. The twists and turns in the nine-month trial included a finding of no wrongdoing by the Supreme Court, before the case was shunted to a lower “accountability” court which handed out the most recent verdict. While the military does not have any visible involvement, the Sharif family’s tense relationship with them has led some to wonder whether the verdict had military backing. Instead of treading carefully, Maryam Nawaz has been pressing her father and uncle to take a harder line against the Pakistani military, which she believes is behind even the Avenfield verdict (whose name comes from the court’s investigation into how the Sharifs funded their purchase of Avenfield House).  Some of the opposition to doing this comes from within her family and those who stand to benefit from the imprisonment of both of the two top leaders of their party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). One of them is Maryam’s uncle, Shahbaz Sharif, long-time Chief Minister of Punjab, the country’s largest province. Following the indictments of brother and niece, he has continued campaigning, refusing to directly confront the military or push the allegation of a doctored verdict. While Maryam and her father are questioning the legitimacy of the July 25 election, in which they, the frontrunners, are disqualified, he seems ready to accept the results, particularly if they install him as the top man in Pakistan.

For a woman running for top office in Pakistan, even the internecine fighting and contrived corruption cases are not the sum of suffering. Pakistan’s religious extremists, steadfastly opposed to women in office, seem to be regaining force, some of them having been inexplicably removed from the suspected terrorist watch-lists, which required them to be under constant observation. They add to new groups, like the Islamic State, that are eager to set up shop in the country. On the day Maryam Nawaz returned to Pakistan, a devastating suicide blast in Mastung, in Balochistan province, targeted a political meeting being held by the secular Balochistan National Party, killing 128 people and injuring 200. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in the country since the 2014 attack on Army Public School in Peshawar.

All of it is chilling, particularly given that Pakistan’s last female Prime Minister was killed in a suicide blast while attending a political rally. It is not daunting enough to stop Maryam Nawaz, who seems ever aware of the theatric worth of political spectacle. A frequent tweeter, she shared pictures of the tearful goodbyes she had said to her children prior to leaving for Pakistan, sagely tweeting “I told my kids to be brave in the face of oppression. But kids will still be kids. Goodbyes are hard, even for the grownups.” She has been sending missives even from jail, one of them a letter written in English and posted on her Facebook account. In it, Maryam declares that she is refusing the special “B” class privileges afforded to Pakistan’s wealthy prisoners, choosing instead to be housed like a regular inmate in Adiala Prison. Her father, housed in a cell where another arrested Prime Minister once stayed, has not been so stoic. He has been complaining about the “facilities,” the dirty bathroom, the absence of an air-conditioner in the punishing 100-degree-plus heat.

Clad in Gucci slippers as she may have been, Maryam Nawaz seems sharply aware of the political dividends of a wrongful conviction narrative, her allotted prisoner number, the difficult conditions—all elements of the stagecraft of her suffering. There are a few solid legal reasons that the verdict and her sentencing are problematic. In his decision, Judge Muhammad Basheer flouted precedent by relying on testimony that under settled precedent should not have been admitted. He did not provide a legal rationale for doing so. In the words of one legal expert, the whole decision in the Avenfield case is “utterly devoid of legal reasoning,” relying on a non-binding report to reach its conclusions. Appeals are expected to be filed early next week.

If confronted, Pakistanis, like many Americans, will claim never to vote based on gender. But the truth is far from that and the tiny number of women in political office in Pakistan is evidence. If there is anything that can eliminate the political burdens of being a woman, it is the empathy borne of what viewers perceive as unjustly imposed suffering. Unlike powerful women, suffering women are palatable, even popular, in Pakistan; they are the stars of soaps and the winners of hearts. With the reality-tv drama of her arrest, the slippers she wore and then the suddenly deplorable details of her confinement, Maryam Nawaz has entered the ranks of those women. She went in as a political daughter propped up by the power of her father; she may well emerge an independently powerful, and deeply complicated, national heroine.