Maryam Nawaz and the politics of looks | The Express Tribune

January 09, 2022


December 17 was the day of the walima of Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s son, Junaid Safdar. It was the finale of the days-long wedding of one of the most prominent political families of Pakistan. Maryam, in another heavily embellished and elegantly carried designer outfit and exquisite jewels looked stunning, as she did on all her son’s wedding events.

Maryam’s wedding looks have had so much commentary that for the first time in my many years of writing, my essay’s opening line carries the word walima. Oh well. It is the season of firsts and days-long shaadis and very expensive clothes and strings of diamonds and sapphires and emeralds chunkier than my sentences.

Let me state the unobvious: I’m against days-long festivities of Pakistani weddings and fully embroidered fancy clothes that cost more than I would care to know this lazily cold December morning.

I find Pakistani wedding finery boring and a waste of money, and attending one function after the other in formal clothes, layers of make-up and high heels is more agonizing than walking on snow barefoot. My entire adult life, I have never had one jora made for any wedding, including those of my siblings and niece. I have a few saris, bought over many years, with no specific occasion in mind, and attending shaadis in those saris is not a Yash Chopra song but it keeps my life free of hassle of dressing up like everyone else. What I love about our weddings is the chance to meet cousins, relatives, and friends I have not met in years, or I only get to see on weddings and funerals. Such is life. Kabhi khushi kabhie gham.

FWIW: Fashion is fascinating to me. I love designer things. And I believe money is very important for many reasons. Despite my certain personal reservations and fondness for austerity, I don’t have any judgement for those who have extravagant lifestyles, have long weddings, and wear expensive clothes. We live in a free world, the last time I looked outside my window.

Almost all the women that I know in the 40-65 age bracket—my cousins, aunts, old friends, social acquaintances, family friends, women I love, women I find irritating, women who look good in anything, women who can’t carry even a Chinese hand fan with grace—spend money and time on looking good at weddings. Many females dress up to stand out. Much effort goes into looking their best, and better than anyone else. Many women just love the whole Pakistani wedding razzmatazz. Clothes that weigh heavier than the bodies they adorn, jewellery that costs more than a luxury car, make-up and hair done by stylists—nothing is too big an expense to look stunning at their children’s weddings, or those of their siblings’ children, or even of those who shouldn’t even matter.

Lahore is all about extravagance and OTT display of everything you have, or you wish you have. And that continues even in the time of inflation, dollar touching PKR 180, and a Chanel Maxi costing €7,947 euro, excluding VAT. Viva la Lahore’s rich—political, business, feudal elite.

I don’t know Maryam in person. In 2020, I saw her twice at the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) HQ in Model Town, Lahore, where I had gone, on two different days, to interview the former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and PML-N Punjab President Rana Sanaullah for the talk show I hosted for a few months. Maryam looked exactly like how she was on TV and in photos and videos posted on social media—very lovely, graceful, impeccably dressed. Multiple times, I have commented on Twitter that Maryam is stunning. Maryam is many other things, but the emphasis on her looks is more than what it should be, and that is mostly because of the—how do I word it delicately—over-enthusiasm of her party’s leaders and supporters about her beauty.

In the last few days, being a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporter and that too a very vocal one, my Maryam-looking-stunning-on-her-son’s-wedding tweets have made me quite unpopular online to the PTI folks who don’t share my views about Maryam’s looks or anything else Maryam. Off-twitter, there is nothing but gushing over Maryam’s wedding looks. Maryam looks like who she is—part of Lahore’s elite. There is no negative commentary. Maryam is gorgeous, and she looks gorgeous at her son’s wedding. Harsh criticism, and for that matter, even hate comments on Twitter do not represent the views of all of Pakistan, and there is no debate about that. It is very important, however, to sift through the glut of commentary, and ascertain what is being said and why it is being said.

Most of the tweets of PTI supporters I have seen on my timeline focused on one point: Maryam belongs to a family of corrupt politicians, and display of ill-gotten wealth is tacky, vulgar. The other criticism is about “upstaging the bride.” Some comments are about Maryam’s “plastic” beauty. There might have been a few tweets that age-and-gender shame Maryam.

Negativity is abundant on social platforms. Many people have attacked Maryam’s clothes, but the cruel jibes and meanness must not be taken for the majority narrative. There are very few endorsers of the imagined—by some PML-N mouthpieces—slight that a woman at the age of 48 doesn’t have the right to look beautiful, that she shouldn’t follow 2021 aesthetics, that she should look old and frumpy. Looking your best is an option available to everyone, even those with very limited resources, and no one—and I repeat no one—demands that a woman in her late 40s or 50s or even 60s must look “her age.” What does that even mean?

For a middle aged me, that very idea is offensive, sexist, misogynistic. Wearing non-revealing, traditional clothes—irrespective of their price tag—is not a wile to look young. It is the exercise of your right to look the way you want to, to look your best. Shaming older women for their clothing choices is an increasingly regressive practice, very ageist, very 1990s, very early 2000s.

I tweeted something about the wedding that I thought was plainly honest, but I deleted it because to me Junaid and Ayesha’s wedding was a young couple’s joyous union that should not be shadowed by anything about their family. Other than my praise for Maryam’s clothes, there was one comment I had for the wedding: “I’m just wondering how after days of a very loud display of wealth, PML-N main and lower leadership will continue their constant lament about crazy inflation, how millions exist without the essentials, the rampant poverty. Vaise, one PML-N leader managed to look awami: Hamza Shehbaz!”

My message to PML-N in this tweet is simple: it is not just bad optics and bad politics, it is also a blatant contradiction of your concerted and relentless campaign to overthrow Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government on your constant refrain of inflation that you say is making lives of millions of Pakistanis hard as hell, lack of opportunities, and bad fiscal policies that have pushed countless people into poverty. When you have abundant wealth—and may you have more gained through honest and transparent means—and you constantly flaunt it in an apathetic coldness, don’t expect people to fall for your concern for their misery, their bare survival. Not many leaders, in any country rich or poor, would run an entire campaign against an incumbent government’s inability to fight inflation and create an equal opportunity state dressed in clothes that cost more than a year’s food for most people. It is hypocritical when not downright cruel.

Social revolutions do not happen in Chanel, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton bubbles. Connections with voters’ hearts and minds are won with palpable concern for their issues. There is simply nothing wrong with being wealthy. There is everything wrong with not being able to account for your wealth and making an ostentatious display of your affluence when millions of people who look up to you as your leader do not even have access to the basics. A good politician who has the potential to go a long way is empathetic, sensitive, kind. And who has everything materially but do not have the need to show it off all the time.

Those PML-N and other Imran Khan and PTI-hating types who tweet, write, and talk on television and vlogs about the “misogyny” and “sexism” of PTI leaders and supporters fail to introspect. Glaringly absent is the idea of taking responsibility. It is not PTI that made Maryam’s beauty the main point of their opposition of Maryam. It is not PTI that voted for Imran Khan because he was good looking or handsome when he was younger. It is Maryam who posts her solo photos looking lovelier than most people in any room. It is PML-N leaders and supporters who post photos that highlight Maryam’s beauty. It is PML-N leaders, and supporters, especially females, who tweet-gush about Maryam’s looks.

No one but the PML-N folks compare Maryam’s looks to those of Imran Khan, a man 21 years older than her. No one but the PML-N cronies think that a person’s face is what motivates a person to vote for them. No one but the PML-N warriors on Twitter think that Khan’s popularity among millions of teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s, mostly male, is because of his looks. No one but PML-N supporters and leaders post an endless stream of Maryam’s photos gushing over her beauty. No one but PML-N leaders and supporters have narrowed the description of Maryam to a beauty queen and not a national leader. Maryam is much more than that, but no one other than her party is to be blamed for the inordinate focus on her physical loveliness.

Going beyond the huge question marks of dynastic politics, inexplicable entitlement, ongoing cases, and conviction by courts, Maryam is PML-N’s most prominent leader, and there are no ifs and buts about that. In a quintessentially patriarchal PML-N, it is refreshing to see many females, in Maryam’s leadership, take the centre stage. Moving beyond Punjab, taking PML-N to all parts of Pakistan is one of Maryam’s political achievements. Huge PML-N rallies, all over Pakistan, are because of Maryam’s charisma. People rallying around PML-N, the credit goes to Maryam.

What you never see: photos and videos of Maryam speaking in her rallies about anything other than her family’s personal and political persecution, and how bad Imran Khan is for Pakistan; talking to the aam aadmi in a corner meeting; having one-on-one interactions with underprivileged folks; visiting PML-N’s constituencies; attending a funeral; visiting a family who has lost someone to an incident of terror or violence; speaking to a large group of young people who do not belong to PML-N; inaugurating a free-for-poor hospital; laying the foundation for a school for children of low income families; announcing the building of a shelter for the homeless; planning scholarships for students with little resources; funding the treatment of patients whose families can’t afford their treatment. Perhaps Maryam does all these things and more, but we never see photos and videos of that. Or have I missed something?

Empathy and kindness do not need publicity, but when you are a politician with the aspiration to lead the country someday, you do things that touch the hearts and minds of those who need your special attention. Your noble acts—if you are an ordinary person—remain hidden, more power to you. As a leader, you do things that inspire others to be better, to make the world a kinder place. Share your good work, there is no shame in being a leader and telling your voters and would-be voters how you spend your days, what you plan to do in the future, where your priorities lie. Your photos cannot just be of the various colours you look good in, the outfits you rock with elan, how you stand out in any gathering of humans.

It is not PTI that posts Maryam’s photos and videos with effusive praise, and it is not PTI that has mainstreamed the focus on Maryam’s age and gender and gorgeousness quotient. Political success is an intricate, multi-layered process, incomprehensible and unavailable to ordinary mortals. If good looks were the main criterion to make it big in politics, our provincial and national assemblies and Senate would be as empty as the Hill House at the beginning of that frightening show.

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