Maryam Nawaz and Nawaz Sharif on the day she was sworn in as Punjab CM.—PML-N/X

Can CM Maryam Nawaz finally evolve from ‘Nawaz ki beti’ to ‘Qoum ki beti’?

Much of what she has accomplished until now has been a fight for her father's vindication. As she takes the CM's oath, however, she can no longer just be her father's daughter.
Published February 26, 2024

“I will prove myself to be my father’s strength, not his weakness,” announced Maryam as she exited the Federal Judicial Academy (FJA) in July 2017, after recording her statement before the joint investigation team probing the Sharif family’s business dealings abroad.

She appeared composed, her focused gaze speaking louder than her words. For the last several months, Maryam and her family had found themselves besieged by a fortitude of corruption allegations, which would ultimately land her a short stint in prison and force her father, PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, into yet another self-imposed exile. But all of that was yet to come.

On that fateful Wednesday in the federal capital, by the time her short speech ended, Maryam Nawaz had announced herself as a major force in Pakistan’s shifting political landscape — and the world had noticed.

Race to the top

This was hardly Maryam’s first foray into the country’s political arena. She had been actively involved in the party’s election campaign in the run-up to the 2013 elections, while also heading the PML-N’s social media wing during and after the polls. In 2014, she was made chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme until her appointment was challenged in the Lahore High Court a year later, forcing her to resign. She was later seen distributing laptops to students on behalf of the Punjab government even though she held no elected office either in the province or at the Centre.

In 2016, when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif had to undergo open-heart surgery, it wasn’t the Prime Minister’s Office or the information ministry that had control over the biggest story of the time. It was Maryam who became the centre of media attention, providing up-to-date and regular updates on her father’s condition to his adoring public via her Twitter (now X) account. From announcing the prime minister’s decision to undergo major surgery to tweeting his first picture after the procedure, Maryam’s Twitter feed provided minute details about how much time the patient would spend inside the intensive care unit (ICU), as well as his tentative plans to come back home.

At the time too, Maryam’s control over the government’s messaging raised some eyebrows, but the issue came to a head much later when audio clips of her phone conversations with then Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed were leaked in which she was issuing instructions to refuse advertisements to certain TV channels. Maryam would later admit that the audio clip was genuine but defended herself by saying that she had been referring to party ads.

Jumping into the fray

By all accounts, Maryam’s first real test in electoral politics came in September 2017, when she led the party’s campaign in the by-elections for the NA-120 seat, which was left vacant by Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in the Panama case verdict. Here, Maryam campaigned for her ailing mother, Kulsoom Nawaz, who ended up winning the seat, albeit with the victory margin shrinking considerably. Pundits would debate whether this was actually a victory for the embattled PML-N — after all, this was the constituency that the party and the Sharif family had dominated for almost three decades. “It was inconceivable that they could be defeated”, wrote journalist Zahid Hussain.

For Maryam, however, this would be the moment she finally cast her shell and declared herself the heir to Nawaz Sharif’s political empire. “For a party with a conservative social ethos and very few women in senior party and cabinet positions, her taking charge has been a positive change,” observed Zahid Hussain. “But being the daughter of the top leader surely makes a huge difference in a dynastic political culture.”

The journey was more difficult than she had imagined, Maryam would admit. In an interview with Voice of America’s Irum Abbasi, she described how women who were in the limelight or the public eye, particularly in leading roles, faced harsher criticism than their male counterparts. “If a woman has formed ideals, principles, ideologies, convictions, values and wants to carve a niche for herself, it will always be viewed with a little suspicion,” she said, adding that despite the resistance from within the party’s ranks, she was “pleasantly surprised” by how accepting the people of Pakistan were.

Whether “the people” accepted her or not, one thing that was clear to all was that her ascendency had come at a huge cost — both to Maryam on a personal level as well as to the party, many of whose stalwarts weren’t too impressed by how quickly she had moved up the ranks, particularly in a party that was all too male-dominated and had hardly any women in leadership roles.

The backlash

As she moved into the spotlight, Maryam found herself increasingly at the receiving end of misogynistic remarks, ranging from comments on her clothes to her age. While much of the vitriol directed at her came from the PTI, social media too raged with discussions on her choice of luxury clothes and accessories, as well as the way she looked at her age. Even her appearance at her son, Junaid Safdar’s wedding, drew flak from social media users, with some going as far as accusing her of “spoiling the day” for her daughter-in-law by looking too good for her age.

But it wasn’t just her political opponents who stood against her. After Nawaz’s ouster, Maryam became the party’s anti-establishment face — even earlier, she was suspected to have leaked a story about the government’s confrontation with top military brass over countering militancy — counting the injustices done to her father over the years. This antagonism did not go down too well with some of the party’s senior leadership — chief among them, former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who said that Maryam needed to “prove herself”. Thus, the schism between the Shehbaz group and the Maryam group finally emerged for everyone to see.

Even those who weren’t opposed to the anti-establishment rhetoric were not too pleased with the way Maryam had been handed the party’s reins by her father. Thus began a tug of war, but as is the case with dynastic politics anywhere, blood runs thicker than competence or meritocracy.

Soon enough, the disgruntlement saw other party stalwarts break ranks, most prominent among them former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who said he had “stepped down from the party office within an hour of the announcement” of Maryam’s elevation to the roles of senior vice president and chief organiser. Then there was Miftah Ismail, who would get instructions from Maryam on Twitter, and who yet again became victim of the infighting between the two camps and was promptly replaced as finance minister by Ishaq Dar.

Perhaps the biggest setback in all this was for Maryam’s cousin, Hamza Shehbaz, who until now, had been projected as the Sharif brothers’ natural successor. Suddenly, however, the PML-N found another option in the charming Maryam to stand up to its latest foe, the PTI, which had branded itself the party of the youth. In doing so, the party hoped the fresh face would help improve its image, which had been ripped apart by by Imran Khan’s constant political pillory against the Sharifs. But that was not to be, for soon Maryam found herself in the crosshairs over the alleged ownership of multiple offshore properties, including the infamous London flats.

What next?

Unfazed by the infighting and the criticism, however, Maryam powered on, less as the party’s vice-president [which was now her formal title] and more as the most vocal defender of her father’s brand of politics. In doing so, she became the anti-establishment poster child, addressing rallies of charged supporters and naming judges and generals who had wronged her father.

Over the years, Maryam has carefully curated a political persona for herself, while surrounding herself with a coterie of fiery orators like Marriyum Aurangzeb, who would go on to clinch prominent positions within the party.

But much of what she has accomplished until now has been a fight for her father’s vindication. As Maryam takes oath as chief minister — the first time a woman has been elected to the role — she can no longer just be her father’s daughter; she is after all, responsible for administering the country’s most populous, and by many measures, its most powerful province.

In her victory speech on Monday, Maryam said: “I want to tell the opposition — which isn’t here — that if you have any issue in your constituency, I will be as accessible to you as I would be for a PML-N MPA. Because now, I am not the chief minister of the PML-N, I am the representative of 120m people — across political divides.”

Ultimately, Maryam Nawaz’s journey from being seen as a symbol of dynastic privilege to becoming a leader in her own right echoes a truth that transcends politics: true strength is not just inheriting a legacy, but forging your own.