Feature: Profile of Marvi Memon

One of Pakistan’s youngest ministers talks about her rise into politics, her spiritual journey, and the Pakistan thats exists outside of Islamabad

BY SHAHRUKH WANI (@ShahrukhWani)

Marvi is oddly at peace with herself. The kind of peace one feels after a long, rocky journey, or perhaps after one has mastered a degree of maturity. “My reason for being in politics is purely spiritual,” she asserts, referring to her long-standing devotion to the teachings of Sufi Abdul Latif Bhittai as evidence. When I ask why politics, “I’m still asking why” she chuckles, quickly adding “it has been a humbling journey.”

At 45 years old, Marvi heads BISP, Pakistan’s flagship billion dollar social security program which has come with a seat in both the federal cabinet and the treasury benches of the parliament. She terms her role today as an extension of her “spiritual journey,” something which began in 2010 when she became a regular visitor to Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s shrine in central Sindh. “Which role in the government can you find which deals with the poor directly?”

Marvi’s life today is a far cry from her time in the corporate sector, first as a banker and later as a head of a major corporation. Business meetings in frosted glass boardrooms in skyscrapers have been replaced with open air corner meetings under the sweltering sun in Thatta, the stable structure of corporate management has given way for the chaos of politics. “Everyone has a different motivation of being here,” she stresses. “I’m not here to judge anyone.”

It’s the 22nd of June, 2011, just a month shy of her 40th birthday, Marvi, dressed in a simple black kameez shalwar, has seated herself in the library of the national assembly — a room rarely used by parliamentarians, but has become a place of solitude for now the sole outlier in her party. Marvi has been visibly anxious, and when she is, she either starves herself or eats aggressively — today is a day for the latter. She has been up for over a day in the agitation of this moment — the epiphany of her career as it will be known.

You need to destroy something bad to create something good, she told herself as she stood on the podium and rapidly recited her much-revised speech announcing her resignation from the house and her party — with an eagerness of someone in a race with time.

“I had never felt so free and correct before than that day,” she says, adding “It was a feeling of liberation of doing the right thing.” A seat in the parliament which was given to Marvi by the patronage of General Musharraf. “I owed my reserved seat to them and spend the first year defending them,” Marvi wrote in her book The Parliamentary Diaries, “during the next two years, however, I stood up for the right thing. There are many policies which I supported initially but challenged them with the passage of time,” she adds.

When asked about the details of her book — which reads like a well-kept catalog of her thoughts and tasks — she is surprisingly upfront, “When I was publishing this diary I was advised against it,” she says, adding that “I was told that there are going to be certain beliefs in here which are hell bent at this point but might change later on.”

“I will be honest enough to say I have learned and I have changed,” she asserts.

Raised in Karachi’s wealthy Sindhi Memon family with partial Arabic ancestry, Marvi’s father Nisar Memon served as a member of the Senate during the same time Marvi was becoming a rising star is the army’s media arm. Her critics term this less than a coincidence.

Marvi didn’t explore her ties to her Thatta roots until her late 30s. Instead, Marvi headed west, schooled at Paris and eventually attended the London School of Economics to study international relations. “When I was a student I was more keen on becoming a journalist,” Marvi recalls. Rather, she came to Pakistan and joined Citibank as a banker “only because it was a popular choice among LSE graduates.”

Marvi left banking six years later to launch Pakistan’s largest vehicle tracking service provider, making her one of the youngest chief executive officers in the country at the mere age of 29. She left Trakker as the company changed hands and joined the army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) as an advisor. “I had to do something bigger and better,” she told me.

In 2007, Marvi approached General Musharraf for a request to be nominated to the reserved seat in the National Assembly. A year later she was elected as a reserved member from Punjab to represent PML’s Musharraf aligned faction, entering the parliament as single mother with dreams of majesty. “My idealism was at the peak that day.”

In retrospect, Marvi admits that her political career has been a roller coaster. “I achieved this learning curve in four years, what about others who have spend 30, 40 years and still aren’t able to learn?”

There is no place further from the spacious farmhouses of Islamabad than Thatta. Once the thriving capital of several regional dynasties, Thatta has been reduced to the very periphery of the nation. Today, nearly eight in ten of residents in this large, desert-like district live in poverty.

For Marvi exploring her roots in Thatta was the start of her ‘political pilgrimage’ which eventually led her running to represent the district in the National Assembly in 2013. “I actually spent one year living there,” Marvi says, however she couldn’t win the election, she adds “the people’s party vote bank (in Thatta) is based on feudal grounds which is difficult to penetrate.” But she refuses to quit on Thatta and maintains a residence there.

For few months after relinquishing her role in the party in 2011, Marvi had a high-profile public experimentation with the idea of joining Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or starting her own party. Marvi had met Imran few weeks before her resignation at his farmhouse. “He wanted me to join PTI,” she says, adding “All his change and youth talk was not impressive, I wanted to talk policy.”

Over the fall of 2011, Marvi attended PTI rallies, fuelling speculations of her joining Imran’s political bandwagon. When asked why she didn’t join Khan’s party, she claims that he is in it for “all the wrong reasons,” adding that his “superiority complex” was evident. “We’re focusing on Punjab and KP,” Imran allegedly told her, “there was a lack of interest in building a national movement” she says. Marvi claims that Khan offered her a position as the party’s main spokesperson but she declined because she found him “fickle and not stable.”

Instead, Marvi chose to join Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, in Sharif she “saw a man big enough to give respect to a younger politician.” Even though Marvi couldn’t win the seat from Thatta despite the backing of her new party, she was instead nominated to represent the party on a reserved seat for women in 2013. “Reserve seat MP’s work extra hard, they do a lot of legislation but they have not been able to get that same amount of legitimacy.”

Now in the cabinet for the first time, Marvi seems to have found a role which she feels passionate about. “BISP is a role in my spiritual journey,” she says, adding that she has the “responsibility of being honest to my job.”

What hurts Marvi about criticism about BISP is when “they think that we’re making beggars out of people.” In order to combat this criticism, Marvi is using Twitter, “I am trying to share with the rest of the world what I’m learning,” she says, adding that “it’s a daily battle for these people”. Marvi takes an issue when critics claim that the billion dollar plus program is creating undue dependency, “they are not idling away at home,” quickly adding that “we’re supporting them in their journey.”

Under Marvi, BISP has expanded to provide support to five million beneficiaries, each receiving about $45 every quarter. “It is not a charity,” she stresses. The role has come with global recognition, last month she won the inaugural Speaker’s Democracy Award by UK’s House of Commons and has also clinched a seat on the World Bank’s Gender Advisory Council. Despite this growing global stature, she still believes that her true role “is with the people.”

“That is why I talk to people every day,” Marvi says referring to her radio show in which she engages with BISP beneficiaries and their problems. “It’s our job to listen to the people.” When not on the radio, Marvi is travelling to meet the BISP beneficiaries. “When you talk to people you realise the impact you’re making.”

Beyond BISP, Marvi isn’t worried about much. “I’m not sitting around and planning the rest of my life,” she claims, “I don’t live like that. I live now.” She admits that’s it’s a tough for women to be in politics, “you’re surrounded by so many people who try to bring you down,” she laments.

The only thing Marvi is certain about is her spirituality, “Before doing anything I ask myself; What were the expectations of Latif Sarkar from his surmi?

Originally Published Here.

Published by Shahrukh Wani

Economist at International Growth Centre, University of Oxford.

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