Power and privilege

July 07, 2017

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JULY 5 was a very hectic day. There were just too many images packed inside the mind as if captured from a train running at full steam.

Only some of the images registered fully. A young woman — in uniform — greeting another in civilian dress but with a certain air of authority about her. A glut of voices narrowing in on the event of the day, that of Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter of a prime minister, and according to many excited pollsters herself a prime minister in the making, appearing before a joint investigation team (JIT).

On that day, the lady had chosen — or she had been so cast by the directors — to sport the extra mantle of a sister as well. She walked towards the stage flanked by her two brothers, with her husband and a battery of Sharif family associates and their retinues in tow, each finding a microphone to speak into, each hurling innuendo at opponents, warning the awestruck inhabitants of the land about the evils that could be unleashed on them for the ultimate sin they had been collectively guilty of committing — dragging a member of the ruling family into the inquiry room. Nay, allowing a lady of the ruling household to be asked a bunch of questions that could, in the honourable tradition of immunity, best have remained unasked.

This was a big day when Maryam Nawaz Sharif generated all kinds of contrasting reactions.

The lady has been active in public life for some time now, but this was by far the biggest moment of her promising political life. She was being looked upon as a recognised leader of a political enterprise, one of the largest political parties in the country. Much more importantly — if anyone cared — she stood there representing the Pakistani woman.

Many of those who watched her approach her hour of trial before the JIT must have been impressed by her defiant posture. Some others were just too obsessed with all the talk about the Sharif nemesis coming to haunt the Sharif children to be bothered about trying to decode any other messages besides pointing out the symbolic value of the royals presenting themselves for accountability in the true spirit of democracy and equality.

This was a big day when Maryam Nawaz Sharif generated all kinds of contrasting reactions. In each of her various avatars, her presence obscured a more permanent reality. She did not permit a clear, out-of-the-ordinary look at a cruel system hidden behind the privilege and pomp being lavished on her. It is not good for a woman to appear before an official inquiry. It is certainly not good for a lady to be interrogated by a bunch of men, even if empowered and entrusted with authority. She should have been exempted from appearing before the investigation team — just as she is supposed to not take any part in any kind of proceedings around her generally.

The lady has the right and privilege to stay away from the affairs that must only be indulged in by men. She may be an individual who is being tipped to inherit the crown from her father. For the moment though, she must play the damsel unduly distressed by those not man enough to live by the old tradition where women enjoyed certain exemptions and privileges, where women were considered unfit to work except for a few specific tasks.

Maryam Nawaz acting as a representative of the Pakistani woman who is routinely denied her rightful role in return for some meaningless medals invented by the chivalrous is a bit too much to swallow.

Maybe, it is a little too unexciting to be celebrated. Instead, a comparison with someone like Benazir Bhutto suits the occasion and the audience well. Benazir, stripped of her rights, betrayed by those close to her family, stabbed in the back, insulted, desperate, comforted by an equally ill-treated woman and the true maker of the Bhutto dynasty, her mother.

This was thought to be a bit too much for the supposedly more relaxed girls from the Sharif family to even come close to matching. There were, indeed, other lesser mortals who outshone her on the day. Shehla Raza, for example, who persisted with her questions about the situation in which she was once dragged to the lock-up. The ‘hue and cry’ she belatedly raised did bring back all those memories of the darkest phase in the country’s history.

That was about all it did in these times where absolutely nothing seems to benefit the survivors in the Benazir camp, unless, of course, you happened to be a Shah Mehmood Qureshi and insisted that you owned up to BB’s legacy even when you could not stay in her party.

This was one of the more subtle points in the unfolding drama. The PPP had nothing to gain. BB’s struggles were relived for the advantage of, shall we say, one of her more natural opponents, the PTI chief. Another entry in the category of the subdued and less-talked-about aspects was the silence that surrounded the theatrics outside where the JIT conducted its business.

Lahore is a little difficult to judge right now but there are impressions of the city which are at the same time strange and consistent with how it had reacted to big scene-changing events in the past. There is obviously some unease in the public over what is happening in the capital right now.

People are a little nervous and can sometimes be found asking for an urgent end to the suspense that’s taken so long to build up. But signs of agitation or big unrest in the making are typically difficult to find. There is an eerie calm not quite like the lull before the storm of yore. It hints towards your usual emptiness that has a habit of coming to the fore post-change.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2017