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Pakistani women face impossible electoral choice

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By Rafia Zakaria

Editor's note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of "The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan" (Beacon 2015) and "Veil" (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN) -- Watching Maryam Nawaz Sharif deliver a speech in May at one of Pakistan Muslim League (N)'s political rallies is an education in poise. Seemingly impervious to the sweltering heat and jostling crowds, the perfectly coiffed Nawaz, who is the daughter of Pakistan's thrice deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, delivers speech after speech without any evidence of a bead of sweat. Two women flank her, but everyone else, the thousands who chant and yell and shout and push and do what is done at a political rally, are men.

This Friday, when she flies to Lahore from London, where she has been spending the past few weeks with her ill mother who is being treated there, this ineffably composed woman will face arrest for having aided her father's graft. On July 6, 2018, the court hearing a case brought by the country's National Accountability Bureau declared former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif guilty of corruption in relation to his family's purchase of properties abroad. Maryam, the dutiful daughter, was declared "instrumental in concealment of the properties of her father" and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Per the verdict, the father-daughter duo have technically been disqualified from running themselves, but their party could still win a majority in Parliament -- leaving the two potentially pulling the country's strings from behind bars.

In Pakistan's parliamentary system, there is no top of the ticket candidate. Voters vote for party candidates in their parliamentary districts, and the party with the highest number elected gets to form a government. This means that if the PML(N) does win a national majority, and the verdict and disqualifications are reversed on appeal -- as they well may be -- Nawaz could still become Prime Minister.

Pakistani women now face a choice. Should they continue to support a political party led by a woman convicted on corruption charges -- or vote for a party led by a man with scant regard for women's rights? Supporting Nawaz would not be an entirely novel proposition. Pakistan's other famous female Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, also faced charges of corruption and was barred from participating in elections.

But corruption convictions can appear and disappear in split seconds in Pakistan; eventually Bhutto reached a deal with the military to expunge her convictions and returned to Pakistan to contest elections that no one was even sure would be held. If Bhutto hadn't been killed in a terrorist attack on December 27, 2007, she would certainly have become Prime Minister of Pakistan a third time. Her party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, still won, and her husband became President.

Nawaz is a different sort of candidate. Unlike Bhutto, whose halting Urdu and education abroad made her seem different from most urban middle-class women, Nawaz, educated in her native Punjab, married at nineteen and has largely lived a traditional, albeit very privileged, life.

A grandmother at 44, she has shown the ability to be both politically aggressive and yet unerringly feminine -- her wispy designer scarves a refreshing pastel note amid the blacks and grays of Pakistan's male-dominated political milieu. And until one week ago, the PML(N) was forecasted to win -- with a clear road for Nawaz to assume the top spot.

The answer of whether the newly convicted Maryam Nawaz deserves Pakistan women's continuing support may lie not with her but in the egregious flaws of the other contenders. The party set to reap the greatest electoral gains if the father-daughter duo are arrested is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by populist strongman and former cricketer Imran Khan. Like Narendra Modi in India and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Khan commands an ultranationalist following, his supporters so given to trolling opponents on social media that the party had to pass a social media code of conduct.

Where women are concerned, PTI comes out even more foreboding. The thrice-married Khan recently wed a woman who appeared in their wedding photos wearing a full-face veil. While it may have been entirely her choice, the fact worries many Pakistani women who do not want to be forced to veil. And Khan himself has declared that Western feminism had degraded the role of mothers and that he opposes its reforms.

His party's recently released manifesto backs up this view of women as glorified child-rearing machines. Not only does the document make no mention of women's rights until page 23, the one page that is given to them is rife with typographical errors, promising such things as the "upgradation" of girls' schools.

And there is more. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, currently controlled by Khan's PTI, is a violent place for women; honor killings, such as the murder of Asma Rani, a medical student, go unpunished. In 2015, PTI signed agreements with extremist groups in tribal areas in the province that banned women from casting votes. The manifesto makes no mention of this and does not make any assurances that the right of women to vote will be protected in this year's elections.

In contrast, Punjab, the country's most populous province, governed by Nawaz's uncle, Shahbaz Sharif, can point to some progress. In 2016, the Punjab Assembly passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, despite pressure from religious hardliners who disagreed with its provisions. The bill makes it easier for women to report domestic violence and even provides for law enforcement removing violent men (rather than terrified women) from the home when a report is made. In what seems like an effort to shame perpetrators, photos of men being led away in chains by female police have been tweeted by government social media accounts.

Undoubtedly, Nawaz is flawed. Avenfield House on Park Lane in London, where she received news of the verdict, seems itself an indictment against her. Even if it was lawfully procured, the house points to the luxury and largesse she enjoys, as Pakistan inhabits the dismal 147 out of 186 spot in women's health, education, political and economic empowerment.

This Friday, Nawaz will stand in the shoes of Bhutto, who eleven years ago boarded a plane to Pakistan and flew home to face her political destiny. If the appeal of this female politician still garners the support it did for Bhutto, then Pakistani women (and men) will turn out in droves to greet Nawaz, stand with her and propel her party to an electoral majority.

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