The new face of PML-N

In a candid interview with Hira Azmat, LUMS teacher and youngest MNA in Pakistan's history, Shaza Fatima Khawaja talks about political entitlement, her personal life and the 'high treason' of not supporting PTI

The new face of PML-N
Artless yet self-assured, Shaza Fatima Khawaja at 25 emerged as the youngest MNA in the history of Pakistan in the aftermath of the May 2013 national elections – though of course, she adds wryly, the records are poorly kept, so there may be no way to be certain. As the niece of Khawaja Asif, longtime PMLN stalwart, Shaza faced criticism for being chosen, in a selection many see as naked nepotism. However, she is also a fine example of exactly what the PMLN in general seems to be lacking as a political party. She was educated at Lahore Grammar School and LUMS, later earning an MA in Political Science from Warwick University, UK. When not on the floor of the National Assembly, her day job consists of teaching Political Science to undergraduates at LUMS. She’s engaged to be married to a former classmate at the end of this year. Refreshingly, she also appears in public minus the token dupatta on head that most Pakistani women in politics adopt, a la Benazir Bhutto, to conform to cultural ideas of female respectability.

[quote]Refreshingly, she appears in public minus the token dupatta on head [/quote]

Fresh-faced, progressive, impeccably educated, and socially savvy, she seems to better fit the projected profile of a PTI supporter or candidate than a PMLN one, an assumption if not borne out by actual facts than at least well entrenched in the socio-political imagination of Pakistanis. So it only makes sense that the PMLN would be happy to have someone like her as their poster child. And of course, add to that a trans-generational political affiliation with the party, as well as a strong academic background in politics, and she seems an ideal candidate.

[quote]She seems to better fit the projected profile of a PTI supporter or candidate[/quote]

Her maternal family has a strong history of political participation. Her grandfather was Khawaja Mohammad Safdar, a student activist for the Muslim league during the Pakistan movement, who went on to join the Zia government as chairman of the Majlis-e-Shura. He then served as speaker in the Pakistan Muslim League government in ‘87. For Shaza, each election necessitated a month-long vacation from school, time that was spent campaigning in Sialkot for her maternal uncle, Khawaja Asif. Some of Shaza’s earliest memories are from door-to-door campaigning with her mother and khala, and attending jalsas in Sialkot.

Her father is a lifelong bureaucrat, and emphatically non-partisan. I wonder out aloud that his career must have benefited from his wife’s family’s political affiliation, considering Punjab is practically the fiefdom of the Sharifs. “Actually, it’s done just as much damage as it may have done good, depending on the era”, she says frankly.

Shaza Fatima Khawaja greeting the Prime Minister in the National Assembly
Shaza Fatima Khawaja greeting the Prime Minister in the National Assembly

In refreshing contrast to most Pakistani politicians, Shaza is realistic about local obstacles to good governance, as well as the limitations of her own party, and not shy to admit it. There is “no such thing as a perfect political party,” she asserts, but finds the PMLN  — a party that in her opinion has considerably “evolved” over the past decade – most closely allied to the principles she believes in, one of which, she says, is a commitment to seeing the democratic system of government flourish in Pakistan. “Simply overthrowing arbitrarily to replace democratically elected leaders is a terrible idea. Democracy is key: let the system decide, and it will inevitably weed out ineffective leadership. We need fair democratic transitions to qualify as a democracy.” She expresses her wariness of political parties that may participate in democratic elections, but seem more aligned with institutions that would disrupt the democratic process.

After their unexpected landslide victory in the May 2013 elections, there was a mad scramble among the PMLN ranks to urgently fill nine extra reserved seats for women. How did you get selected, I ask Shaza, thinking of the numerous internet memes dedicated to her supposedly nepotistic appointment. “How one would apply for any other job, actually. I sent in my resume. My father would have been disappointed if I didn’t even apply.” She goes on: “It’s actually a funny story. I barely made the 5 p.m application deadline at the Punjab Election Commission. I thought I was applying for the Punjab Assembly, and as I rushed in, I was told in front of 20 live cameras that I was in fact going to be considered for the National Assembly. I found out about my eventual appointment by reading about it in the newspaper, just how the rest of the country found out.”

I ask if she would have still applied if her fiancé had not been comfortable with her assuming public office. She is candid in her admission that if he hadn’t, she would have stayed away. “I believe there are many ways to serve the country.”

Shaza Fatima at the Election Commission of Pakistan office
Shaza Fatima at the Election Commission of Pakistan office

Shaza concedes it’s great to see new voters increasingly more involved in Pakistani politics, but: “There are just too many people analyzing politics without even a basic political vocabulary or understanding of political realities. Since my position allows me far greater proximity to the political landscape and hence a lot more information regarding current political events than the average Joe, so now more often than not, I tend to scroll down my Facebook newsfeed while simultaneously rolling my eyes.”

Does she find it socially isolating to support the PMLN considering a lot of her peers seem to vociferously support the PTI? “It can be alienating, especially when so many people my age and belonging to my social circle seem to regard voting for any party other than PTI high treason,” she laughs. “During the early days of the PTI dharna in Islamabad, all my offices were closed and there was a lot of absurd commentary on social media. I realized I could either ignore them or troll them; I had a lot of time on my hands so I’m afraid I ended up doing a great deal of the latter.”

Historically, the PPP has been the socially liberal and progressive party. Many consider the PMLN to be a right-wing old boys’ club. Has she had any trouble adjusting and finding her own space within the party?

“In the last few years, I’ve seen a drastic shift in the PML-N. Currently, the vast majority of the party are new members. I have a lot of colleagues with progressive values, especially the new entrants, and the people coming in through the reserved seats.” She rattles off a list of names.

Shaza points out some of the PMLN’s current problems as a party: Inter-party organizational problems, including a not so effective communication network and weak dissemination of information. Notably, the ruling party is not as media savvy as they should be. Contemporary Pakistan is hardly the Pakistan of the 90s; with multiple news channels and the rise of social media, the PMLN has a lot to learn regarding political propaganda. This is why, even though the PMLN has a vast majority in the Parliament, they seemed to not have won a very decisive victory as far as controlling the political discourse and national narrative is concerned. Shaza hopes to influence changes in those directions, in addition to others. She is currently involved with the Prime Minister’s Youth Program, the Young Parliamentarians Forum, and also some pieces of legislation that are in the works, including an anti-torture bill. “My grandfather fervently believed in democracy and yet worked within a dictatorial government under General Zia, because he realized he could affect change by working within the system. Shortly after he joined the government, Zia announced general elections. I share my grandfather’s belief. Political participation is essential, and I hope to leave a mark.”