Hina Rabbani Khar was not my top choice for foreign minister. Others within the Pakistan Peoples Party were more qualified to be the country’s top diplomat. The blogosphere, email groups and Twitter feeds are buzzing with criticism from Pakistanis disappointed with Khar’s appointment as it epitomises the lack of merit, deep-rooted dynastic politics and the restrictive hold of the feudal classes on the political system. Criticism of her lack of expertise and the advantage offered by her family background are fair and deserve to be aired. What is not fair, and downright sexist, is bashing Khar on account of her looks and gender.
I’m not trying to be a wet-blanket feminist who tries to kill the fun in big boys talking politics and using ‘humour’ to add appeal to their writing. I like a good laugh too, but what I don’t like is a woman being singled out and ridiculed for things that her male predecessor was never targeted for, despite them bearing an uncanny resemblance to each other.
The dapper Shah Mahmood Qureshi was no less dashing or handsome as Khar is pretty. Especially when compared to some of his rotund, flame-bearded colleagues in parliament, much like Khar stands out when you compare her to her rotund colleagues. Qureshi was a sharp dresser, like Khar. Yet, while we have obsessed endlessly over the handbag she took to India, we never really paid much attention to the tie Qureshi wore at the joint press conference where prospects for India-Pakistan peace were butchered. I wonder why.
We’ve cried ourselves hoarse over Khar’s feudal background and her family’s influence in politics, but was there similar outrage among Pakistan’s mighty internet crusaders about Qureshi being the Shah Rukne Alam sajjada nashin, arguably the biggest source of his political clout? And there is also the small matter of Qureshi’s father having been the governor of Punjab, but somehow, in his case, familial linkages to the world of power and politics did not matter.
What does set Qureshi and Khar apart is the former’s longer record with the PPP. However, none of his previous experiences or portfolios provided any kind of training or expertise to head the foreign ministry. Yet this was not problematic in his case, as he dressed well and spoke English well. Khar dresses well too and can speak pretty good English. She has a degree in hospitality and tourism management which, some could argue, is better preparation for diplomacy than a law degree or experience with agriculture policy — Qureshi’s qualifications.
Hina Rabbani Khar’s appointment is symptomatic of many flaws in Pakistani society and politics, and are thus worthy of criticism. However, the kind of criticism that she has received is symptomatic of a deeply problematic gender bias in our society. Since her appointment, Khar has had to deal with slurs against her character, speculations about the methods she used to get to the top, snide remarks about her looks and accessories and a complete disregard for her intellect which has helped her manage several important portfolios.
She is not alone in facing such sexist onslaughts. Women in Pakistan who dare to look good and take pride in their femininity while wielding political power, like Sherry Rehman, will have to suffer numerous baseless insults about their character, integrity and competence. Only by turning themselves into an elderly maternal figure do women manage to get themselves taken seriously. Now that’s a pity. I don’t see men scurrying about to become brotherly or fatherly figures to the average Pakistani woman. Why must this be a woman’s lot if she is to be in power in Pakistan?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2011.