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]