Kulsoom Nawaz: A struggle for democracy

The three-time first lady of Pakistan, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz breathed her last on Sept. 11. Her demise ended her months-long battle with cancer. That was not the only front she had to battle on during her life; her life is replete with persistent struggle. History will always remember her as an unassuming yet resilient figure who never caved in to the opposing currents. She was a politician more to circumstances than by choice. However, the fact did not let her resolve to waver in her battle for democracy.

Kulsoom Nawaz was a relatively apolitical figure, a typical homemaker, until his husband, Nawaz Sharif’s ouster as a Prime Minister in 1999. That incident proved to be a watershed in her life as it marked the advent of her political struggle that only ended with her ascension from this world.

Born to a Kashmiri family of Lahore on March 22, 1950, Begum Kulsoom is the granddaughter of a famous wrestler, Ghulam Muhammad, better known as Gama Pehlwan. She was rather a literary person, as her Masters in Urdu from Punjab University depicts. She tied the knot with Nawaz Sharif, son of a businessman in 1971. However, she continued her studies after her marriage and received a Ph.D. in Philosophy.

She preferred to remain low-key even after becoming the First Lady in 1990. Starting her second term as the First Lady in 1997, she had no idea that this term was going to bring her from the obscurities of indoor to the limelight of politics.

After her husband’s ouster as a prime minister, Begum Kulsoom’s entire family was arrested before being allowed to leave the country. Ms. Kulsoom herself was put under house arrest. Nevertheless, she remained undeterred, orchestrating a motor procession from Lahore to Peshawar in 2000. The rally was organized to raise money for the drought victims.

But in reality, it was meant to protest against the aristocratic regime of the time. Begum Kulsoom attempted to drive through the police cordon stationed at her residence having only a dozen political workers with her. The police tried to remove her from the car, but all attempts were futile.

Finally, a crane was brought to tow the car with her ensconced inside. This strong image of resistance remains indelible in pages of the history. The standoff continued for 10 hours before Kulsoom could return home.

In a salvaging attempt, Kulsoom became the party president in 1999 during one of the most turbulent periods in democratic history. She acted in this capacity till 2002.

The need for her to save the party rose again in 2017 amid her husband’s disqualification from Lahore’s NA-120 constituency by the Supreme Court. She contested the by-elections from her hospital bed, as she had to remain in London for medical treatment.

After winning the by-elections, she became the Member of National Assembly for the first time on June 17, 2018. However, Kulsoom could not enjoy the victory or participate in the Assembly at all due to her deteriorating health. But her services to democracy and her party will remain alive in the history.

Not only that she contributed to the struggle for democracy, but she also became an inspiration for her daughter, Maryam Nawaz. In an interview, she said that her mother “dauntlessly challenged the usurper when a lot of men backed out… She’s contributed famously to my father’s life and to democracy in Pakistan.”

While her husband and daughter stand behind bars in Pakistan, she succumbed to the illness, leaving her family in mourning. Her struggle proves that it was more to her than being a three-time first lady, a homemaker, and a mother of four children. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz will always be remembered as a fighter for democracy, who stood up for her values and beliefs.

Published in Melange Intl. Magazine September 2018.

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