Women in diplomacy | Pakistan Today

Women in diplomacy

Conquering new heights

As the writing of this column coincides with the International Women’s Day it is dedicated it to all the Pakistani women diplomats who have done the country proud. To all the professionals who have been working tirelessly on the diplomatic front to raise Pakistan’s profile and to protect its interests at home as well as abroad.

Pakistani women are progressively gaining eminence in the ever challenging world of diplomacy. Currently, women diplomats head a dozen foreign missions in key regions including Americas, Africa, Europe, Middle East and South Asia and almost as many are posted in other diplomatically important missions. It is not their gender but their ability, talent and commitment that gives them the recognition in the world capitals.

Significantly, it is the first time in the country’s history that Pakistan’s top diplomat leading the premier institution is a woman. Ms Hina Rabbani Khar, who has proved her competence, is the youngest ever foreign minister to head the male dominated Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A couple of ministry’s key divisional desks including Europe and South Asia are also headed by women.

The appointment of women officers to the high profile slots has little to do with Ms Rabbani as most of them had made their mark on their own merit, much before she was elevated to the office of a full minister.

Of the 12 women currently posted as envoys abroad, four head diplomatic missions in European capitals and three each in the Middle East and Americas; one each in Africa and South Asia. With the exception of one political appointee, Ms Sherry Rehman, a journalist-turned-politician, posted as ambassador to the world’s most powerful capital – Washington DC, all the other serving Pakistani women envoys belong to the Foreign Service. Ms Rehman is, however, an accomplished professional and her competence is recognised internationally. The US-based Foreign Policy magazine in November 2011 nominated her as one of the Top 100 global thinkers. Dr. Maleeha Lodhi was another outstanding diplomat who served as ambassador in Washington in recent past. In the nineties, Syeda Abida Hussain became the first woman to be given this coveted slot.

Women diplomats currently posted as ambassadors are Ms Attiya Mahmood – Jordan; Mrs Seema Illahi Baloch – Sri Lanka; Mrs Humaira Hassan – Portugal; Ms Raana Rahim – Lebanon; Ms Seema Naqvi – Egypt; Ms Fauzia Abbas – Denmark; Ms Naela Chohan – Argentina; Ms Naghmana Hashmi – Ireland; Ms Tasnim Aslam – Morocco; Ms Tehmina Janjua – Italy; and Ms Riffat Masood – consul general in Los Angeles, US.

Another senior career diplomat Ms Fauzia Sana, is also due for her third ambassadorial assignment. This will take the number of Pakistani women ambassadors to 13 this year, a record number of women envoys to ever represent Pakistan.

At present, two women officers are in the top echelon. Additional secretary Ayesha Riyaz, previously ambassador to Switzerland, now heads the Europe desk at the headquarters and Ms Fauzia Sana, previously ambassador to Portugal and Singapore is serving as additional secretary, foreign affairs at the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. Ms Zehra Akbari, formerly ambassador to Mexico is director-general of the South Asia Division, the first woman officer to be appointed to this very important and demanding post. On an equally important India desk Ms Aisha Farooqui serves as director. Both senior and junior women officers are also assigned to important desks such as Afghanistan, China, Japan & Korea, the UN, NBBS (Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka), Americas, Policy Planning and Protocol. Ms Mumtaz Zahra Baloch is director UN, Ms Leena Salim Moazzam, director Policy Planning, and Ms Saima Sayed is the deputy chief of Protocol.

Notably, a significant number of women officers are also serving at various levels in foreign missions including the US, India, Canada, Switzerland, Singapore, Poland, Australia, Brussels, Malaysia and Spain. Ms Iffat Gardezi, occupies the number two slot in Washington and Ms Amna Baloch is the Deputy Head of Pakistan Mission in Colombo. A number of officers will soon be heading to Pakistan missions in Austria, Switzerland, China, Russia and Syria.

The latest update from the ministry regarding the current strength of officers shows that of the 447 serving officers 63 are women, constituting 13.2 per cent of the total officer strength. Simply put today two out of every 15 officers at the ministry are women. Ten more women are to join the ministry by next week. Although the number is not large, this is the highest ever, indicating a marked improvement in the visibility and ground gained by women diplomats over the last one decade.

The existing gender imbalance is partly explained by the fact that Pakistan Foreign Service opened to women only in 1973 as a result of the Administrative Reforms of 1972. However, the role of Pakistani women in diplomacy dates back to 1952 when Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan became the first woman to be appointed as ambassador. She served as Representative of Pakistan to the 7th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

One most commendable development at the ministry under this government has been the induction of Ms Saima Saleem, the first visually impaired person to join the Foreign Service. Ms Saleem who bagged the 6th position in the CSS examination, was, as an exceptional case, allowed by the top leadership to join the Foreign Service in 2009.

One reason for the highest number of women envoys at this given time is that a larger number of women officers have reached the level of seniority required for ambassadorial posts. However, this promising trend is more a result of affirmative action for ensuring a level playing field in the ministry for women officers who had earlier been sidelined. Credit goes to former foreign secretaries Riaz Khokhar and Riaz Mohammad Khan for recognising the merit and ensuring impartiality in nominations and appointments for key diplomatic positions. Mr Khokhar was in fact the first foreign secretary in decades to take affirmative action and increase visibility of accomplished but largely underappreciated women officers by appointing them to important positions in the ministry including his own office. His successor Mr Riaz Mohmmad Khan for the first time in the ministry’s history appointed a woman officer, Ms Tasnim Aslam, as the spokesperson, a high profile post that had till then been reserved for only male officers.

One hopes that the new foreign secretary, Jalil Abbas Jilani, will uphold this positive move towards equal opportunity for both the genders in the ministry. Not as a concession or a favour but as a principle of fair play.

Over the years women officers from the foreign service have been posted in all sorts of regions and countries to most prized and difficult posts including China, US, UK, Central Asian states, Iran, India, Bangladesh, Romania, and Algeria. If you ask women diplomats they would any time prefer challenging assignments as it is as much part of their training as their male colleagues to deal with tough situations.

In the recent past, Pakistani women diplomats heading foreign missions have been caught in crisis situations but remained steadfast. In the face of adversity and most difficult challenges on the diplomatic front they proved their mettle and ability. At the peak of Israeli military aggression against Lebanon in 2006 it was Ms Asma Anisa, Pakistan’s then ambassador in Beirut who held the fort there. Dr Maleeeha Lodhi was the ambassador to Washington when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 required an extraordinarily capable envoy in the US; and she was the Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK before and after the 7/7 attacks in the UK. When the massacre of the Royal family took place in Nepal, again it was a woman ambassador there – Ms Fauzia Nasreen. And when there was turmoil in Romania it was again a woman ambassador, Durree Shahwar Qureshi, posted there. In January 2011 during the unprecedented unrest and rebellion in Egypt it was Ms Seema Naqvi who braved the stormy revolution as ambassador. And now when Pakistan-US relations are going through the most turbulent times, it is Ms Sherry Rehman at the helm of affairs in Washington.

So those who believe that women are appointed ambassadors to promote a “soft image” of the country should think again. This whole notion of women promoting a “soft image” is sexist, flawed and downright offensive. It is condescending and tends to undermine their professionalism and competence.

One recalls that in 2007 when Ms Tasnim Aslam was appointed ambassador to Italy, the Italian ambassador at her farewell dinner in Islamabad remarked that she would project the ‘soft image’ of Pakistan in Italy. The then foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri who was present there immediately retorted: “It is for substance, not soft image that we are sending her as ambassador.”

The writer is a senior journalist and has been a diplomatic correspondent for leading dailies. She was an Alfred Friendly Press Fsellow at the Chicago Tribune daily in the US and a Press Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK. She can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Asim said:

    I appreciate your effort to highlight women contribution today. However, I would disagree regarding your statement "Ms Hina Rabbani Khar, who has proved her competence,…) for the below reasons:
    1) She has a degree in hotel management-
    2) She became minister at the age of 25 & kept important portfolios (Can please tell me any middleclass lady elevated to a post of distinction)
    3)Of all her visits abroad what is the output?
    She is not here because of her competency she is here because of her feudal background.
    Pakistan can only make progress once everyone has equal opportunities. In reality its not true.As Ralph waldo Emerson said"Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are".
    Let me tell you, the Ruling class has neglected others through out the history thats why pakistan is not a welfare state today.

  2. Ala ud Din said:

    Although women diplomats of Pakistan are doing a reasonable job. A few of my friends who are at senior posts in the foreign office tell that majority of the female officers consider it their "right" to be posted in Europe and other developed countries just because they are women and want a better life for themselves. Most of the times they are given precedence over their male colleagues, who are more capable, simply because they are female. Most of these female officers are known for their psychological issues and problems, because of which they are not only a liability to their service, but also to the people of Pakistan. On one side you have Ambassadors like Fauzia Abbas who use the embassy staff as their personal servants to walk her dogs , to Ambassadors like Seema Naqvi, who have alot to deface the image of Pakistan. For more information about her work you may read an article published in Nawai Waqt on 28 Feb 2012 by Dr. Akhtar Shumaar titled "Misr may Pakistani Sifaratkari"

    • Sahibzada Ahmed said:

      I fully agree with female ambassadors having psychological issues. Ladies usually escape criticism and are seen ignorant mercy. In case of Seema Naqvi, since she was living as a geographical bachelorette- she has has deep psychological, regional and sectarian biases. She obviously lacked diplomacy, experience, vision and leadership. Finally she started hallucinating and used to treat the sick people with her holy breath on water instead of leading them to Doctors. She was a fiasco in mismanaging the Pakistani rescue plane during the revolution. It was only luck that nothing reportedly happened to the Pakistanis during revolution. An insider may comment on her psychopathic dislocations with her staff- She remained generally forgiven for being a lady and spouse of a very seasoned and respectable diplomat. She is a perfect example of a misfit. Ladies need to explore more suitable fields of professions according to a suitability and there must be some kind of behavioral management course for such incompetent selections of the exam based allotment of civil servants. But such cases are rare and can be resolved by thousand means!!!Good luck Pakistan. For more details contact [email protected], [email protected]

      • Rafat Jamal said:

        I fuly agree with Sahibzada Ahmed, that these woman take advantage of their sex and we condone their shortcomings.

  3. faith betrayed said:

    they are as good or bad as anybody…..take it from an insider

  4. kITKAT said:

    We, one shoud not forget the fact that it is not ony merit but Musharraf fixed a quota for women in CSS also which is imncreasing their numbers. Some bad traditions are also setting in. One lady Asstt Director few years ago alleged about a descent officer that HE HAS STOLEN MY WATCH/ OR HARASSMent and a senior aditional secr5etary did an enquiry. So male officeRs have to save tHEIR izzat now
    tHE OTHER THING IS TRADITIONAl hheirarchy has broken. Now additional secretaries (some of the 8 Addl Secretaries) cdall them directly wOrk by passing DireCtors or DGs and iNtErteStIngLY, ThEY write/ or countErsign yOUng LADieS' aCrs crs dirEctLY, vIrTuALLY byPASsING anY rEspeCT or JUDgMENT of ThEiR immeDiatE bossEs at 2 leVeLS. sO IT IS NEW CHALLENGES FOR MALE OFFICERS NOW. lADIES OFTEN SEEK POSTINGS IN US, EUROPE OR SAFE COUNTRIES LIKE mALAYSIA, tURKEY NOT LIKE eTHOPIA, tANZANIA, cUBA, nIGER, nIGERIA, lIBYA, tUNISIA, nnORTH kOREA OR aFGHANISTAN. hELL OF A DIFFERENCE

  5. kitkat said:

    JUST to add, In Kasuri Sb, times and afterwards, Pakistan had lady Amb in 11 out of 12 W European countries, Ireland, Italy, Portugal (Ms. Fauzia Sana), SWitzerland, London (DR Lodhi), Paris (Ms Asima), Spain, Poland (not W Europe) and some others. Aren't these confortable places. Male officers had to ttake care of the rest.

  6. Omaimah zaman said:

    Well there are always two sides of a coin.Parochial minds would never see the half glass full.But the effort and consistent hard work of these female diplomats is really needed to be appreciated.There is definitely, long way to go .The best part is criticism always help for a society to grow .So the pessimist approach, would act as an impetus force for all these diligently working ladies and upcoming talent to further grow in their field.

  7. Marria said:

    Ambassador Seema Naqwi died two months ago in late 2014. May her soul rest in Janna.

  8. Wajid Hussain said:

    Besides any approach, reality is women need women for better support and help. So women should get higher education, and serve best in their house + nearby society.

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