The foreign minister wears Prada

Published: July 28, 2011

The author is a development professional.

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.

Reader Comments (38)

  • Ayesha
    Jul 28, 2011 - 11:44PM

    wonderful article…I really hope that she is judged on her own merit rather than on any prejudices we may have…

    verty articulate, Sehar!

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  • Mohan Ram
    Jul 28, 2011 - 11:45PM

    Is it not the truth. You have stated facts that cannot be disputed.
    In a way you have to blame the religion you practice where women are third class citizons to be used to procreate, where farm animals could be classified as second line citizens as they are more useful to work, means of transportation etc.
    Until the mind set of the mulias and the bearded ones change rhere is very little chance women will be allowed to come to the forfront in politics. It is indeed a pity as I am sure there are many talented women forced into the burka world in Islamic countries. The men in these countries do not know what they are loosing. May be they will change in the next world.

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  • Omair Shakil
    Jul 28, 2011 - 11:53PM

    Ms Sehar, so many similarities but there is one important difference between Ms Khar and her predecessorn that you forgot to mention: Ms Khar is is known for jumping ships as and when was needed to stay in power. Mr Qureshi has a clean sheet in this regard. That in itself speaks volumes about their character.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Jul 29, 2011 - 12:19AM

    I did not know that people were criticizing her looks and dress. That is tackey.

    I only took exception to people saying she was competent and did a great job in her previous assignments. I had one occasion to meet her and you know what they say about first impressions. Dull, lacking in charm or charisma and clueless about the pompous-sounding portfolio she held. Her contribution to that delegation which visited Washington was a ZERO. Why, I wondered, is she here?

    But then you can ask that question about 95% of any delegation from Pakistan. Most of them are along for the ride at taxpayer expense.

    She held the same portfolio in the previous government. I do also have problems with people who do that. You begin to question their integrity.

    But, no matter, competence, integrity, honestly, a solid track-record…these are all fanciful things not to be found in abundance in Pakistan.

    What a great pity that is.

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  • Hasan Abidi
    Jul 29, 2011 - 12:33AM

    @ Sehar
    Wujood e zan say hai tasweer e kainat main rang
    Issi k saaz say hai zindagi ka soz e daroon

    Timothy Leary once famously said,

    ” Women who seek to be equal with men, lack ambition”.

    I think a woman of today is capable ( if not better), to achieve all that men can.

    Sehar, the challenge confronting our social make up , ever since our inception 60 odd years or so, has been the marginalization of 54% of our populace.

    The prevalent n ingrained belief, that women cant be better to men, no matter wat, has driven our menfolk into a zone of some very delusional superiority complex. But the worst is, that they like it there.

    The fair sex has been confined to vey spelled out roles.
    Ofcourse thats wat nature had in mind….
    or wait a minute………..
    Isnt that the mantra of our feudal-religio-political establishment, drilled down in our collective psyche with shameless ferocity?

    There z more to a woman than child bearing n ghardari

    The woman of today is career driven, more equipped than before with weaponry of self belief n talent to match that confidence.

    In short , a woman of today is an embodiment of substance.
    There z definitely brains added to that eternal beauty.

    Its a pity though, that Pakistani men, have hard time acknowledging that.

    Exceptions r there, but yet to trickle down from the educated n liberal minority to the utterly conservative, and sometimes violent majority. A majority that resists change, not just on account of its illilteracy, but also the false chauvinism that comes with the package.

    While the women of the world have moved to greener pasteurs of learning, intellectual advancement and enhanced societal participation, the majority of women here are still contemplating, how to convince their fathers n brothers, to allow them to continue education after the basic primary/secondary layout?

    While we c women as part of space expeditions elsewhere, our women experience bomb explosions in their schools/colleges ( ofcourse seeking education is the cardinal sin n truly unislamic), family pressures and sometimes outright condemnation for pursuing their dreams n aspirations & risk hearing the dreadful word of “honor” from the ever-on-hand Ghairat Brigade.

    So character assasination, ridicule and degradation have now been transformed into daily life weapons of mass discouragement.
    Men who find themselves inferior to women they compete with, somehow go into a shell of self denial.
    A denial that more often than not turns deadly.

    The call of the hour…………u got it …EDUCATION at the grass roots.
    Gd piece Sehar…keep it up……….(Wd like to know ur feedback on my comment)
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  • mariam shahzad
    Jul 29, 2011 - 2:55AM

    sir mohan ram will all due respect but i think your comment holds true to a great extent except for where you say: “the bearded ones”. i urge you to introspect this statement as isn’t it that certain mind set rather than the pre-conceived stereotypical images permanently invading our minds?

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  • Jul 29, 2011 - 3:11AM

    This piece made more sense to me than the rest of the “descriptions” of Khar (I wouldn’t call them articles) did. Well this is how it is, women are instantly reduced to mere objects of desire. Men actually believe that if a woman likes to dress well, she does it entirely for their sake.

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  • Mian Aslam
    Jul 29, 2011 - 3:41AM

    What do you expect in a system of dynastic political system backed and monopolised by feudals of no character, education or vision ?

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  • sameel
    Jul 29, 2011 - 4:44AM

    A. It was Indian media who gave the hype of what she has been wearing and since it was coming again and again Pakistanis couldn’t help but comment.
    B. By that theory everyone should welcome dynastic politics and welcome Bilawal. If Qureshi came through the wrong system it should be stated as wrong.

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  • Bilal
    Jul 29, 2011 - 8:43AM

    I see your point ….. Good read!
    However a $20,000 Hermes Birkin bag and that too 2 of them is downright ridiculous…. I am so not eating at Polo Lounge ever again Recommend

  • hid
    Jul 29, 2011 - 9:40AM

    Rubbish article!!!!
    Pointing towards Kher’s feudal background is not at all gender bias. A lot of people
    criticized Qureshi because of the same thing. And, targeting her degree in tourism is also not sexist. I don’t know why writer is delibrately trying to mark these things as sexist.Recommend

  • Saif
    Jul 29, 2011 - 9:59AM

    I happen to like S.M.Qureshis brioni ties. Even Kasuri wore suits from savile row, which were very classy. The problem is that a Pakistani foreign minister has to be someone with experience.Recommend

  • Abrar
    Jul 29, 2011 - 10:00AM

    Unfortunately dressing up in the most expensive clothes was totally out of place in a county like India. It was a poor decision. She should have been briefed by our ambassador and Foreign Sec.However Hina Khar should be assessed on her merits. Perhaps our VIPs need to learn some lessons from the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who dresses very conservatively when visiting any muslim country such as Saudi Arabia. Miss Khar was appropriately dressed if she were visiting Paris. You don’t need to flaunt your expensive accessories while on official visits. This is a problem with even our PM, Interior Minister and the rest. What matters in the world of international relations is to negotiate and represent the country properly, instead of covering up your lapses with expensive watches, sunglasses, diamond jewelry, handbags etc.

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  • Abdul-Mughis Rana
    Jul 29, 2011 - 10:29AM

    @Mohan Ram:
    5 blinds were offered a visit to the zoo there they came across an elephant their guide informed them accordingly. One blind touched the tail and said elephant is like a rope, the 2nd one touched the leg and said its like a pillar, 3rd touched the trunk and exclaimed its like a huge pipe, 4th touched the stomach and said its like a mountain and 5th one touched the ears and said its like banana leaf! So my dear Islam from outside may appear as it did to the 5 five friends but for a believer ALLAH SWT (God) opens the inner understanding and mostly new Muslim do far better than born Muslims!

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  • Amna Jahan
    Jul 29, 2011 - 10:37AM

    Excellent! Very well written.

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  • RealityCheck
    Jul 29, 2011 - 11:02AM

    What difference does that really make, which dress she wears? Which hand bags she carry? All these things do not make any difference in the world of Foreign Relations.
    The author talked in cliches about sexism, its a reality, get over it. All I am interested in is how effectively she communicates the Pakistan POV to the rest of the world. Her sex, her clothes makes no difference when it comes to playing ball with her counter parts.

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  • zebunnisa
    Jul 29, 2011 - 11:06AM

    @Mohan Ram:
    How very convenient to blame a religion you apparently have no knowledge of Mr. Mohan. It’s very easy to pass ignorant comments in a condescending manner. First get your facts straight about Islam before making irresponsible statements. Alot can be said about practices within your religion and atrocities committed agaisnt women in the name of caste and religion in your own country as well. This article is about something else completely….

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  • Tariq Aqil
    Jul 29, 2011 - 11:45AM

    Very well said Sehar! you have hit the nail on the head. HRK is the soft dignified and decent face of Pakistan. We need more people like her to project and portray Pakistan as a country of decent,cultured and educated people who can hold their own against the best of the best in the world.I shudder to think of a time when the religious fanatics are in control of this country and our federal cabinet will be a collection of bearded fanatics spitting fire and brimstone! That is what happened in Afghanistan in the recent past when the one eyed blood thirsty Mulla Omar was in command with his coterie of evil looking fanatics, Taliban supporters in Pakistan such as Iran Khan need to be reminded that only THREE countries in the world had recognized that band of Obscurantist Fanatics at that time.

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  • Nadir Khan
    Jul 29, 2011 - 12:25PM

    I agree with Ms Tariq. There’s a lot of hypocrisy involved here.

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  • ba ha
    Jul 29, 2011 - 12:44PM

    When hiring someone for an important post, especially a security cleared post, gender issues are as important as domicile and experience. We being basic entry level “hero worshipers” types expect MS Khar to show “leadership”. Unfortunately she has to show her ability to implement decisions taken by authorities. I still think appointing her was an irresponsible decision.Recommend

  • Adnan Dhanani
    Jul 29, 2011 - 1:03PM

    Well written !

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  • Tony Singh
    Jul 29, 2011 - 1:38PM

    And BTW will someone point out what she would have worn and carried? Its easy to say this should not have been done. Please say what she would have done. At least she can prepare her next trip keeping your suggestion in mind.

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  • Omair
    Jul 29, 2011 - 1:43PM

    “She has a degree in hospitality and tourism management which, some could argue, is better preparation for diplomacy than a law degree”.

    Have you completely lost the plot?

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  • Jul 29, 2011 - 1:53PM

    It’s the media that makes stars of public figures. The Western as well as the Indian media have a tendency to glamourise women just like Hollywood and Bollywood. One can see that the Pakistani media has largely echoed what was reported by the Indian/Western media about HRK’s star effect. Her profile in politics and diplomacy is a different ball game. Up to this point, having a low profile was an asset for her. It will take time for things to crystalise and for everybody, including those who chose her, to know the real Hina.

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  • badshah
    Jul 29, 2011 - 2:25PM

    It’s ridiculous style of talking on sex and gender issues. The writer seems to be totally ignorant of the problems working women face in Pakistani society! A woman of upper or upper middle class in Pakistan has no relevance to the women of the working classes!Recommend

  • adam
    Jul 29, 2011 - 3:13PM

    The dapper Shah Mahmood Qureshi was no less dashing or handsome as Khar is pretty”, this statement came from you very late, “shah sb will be looking for you”. I personally think that women were unable to comment on SMQ, merely due to the reason that they were not capable of defining his outfits. Women want to be praised, but they hardly praise men.

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  • Pasha
    Jul 29, 2011 - 3:15PM

    I am Sorry you are Terribly Wrong..
    Khar has been a minister in the Pakistani cabinet since the last three years. But No Pakistani newspaper or TV channel discussed about her looks, her clothings and her way to dress. It only come into the press after her tour to India, when the so-called liberal and democratic society started discussing her attire rather than her level of knowledge and experience.
    And please dont feel jealous she is competent enough to fight for Pakistan’s cause.

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  • taha
    Jul 29, 2011 - 3:43PM

    @Mohan Ram:
    how dare you pass a comment like that do u want us to get started on hindu practices of suttee and how widows are treated islam liberates women while its religion like yours that treats them as third class citizens

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  • Shehrbano Taseer
    Jul 29, 2011 - 4:00PM

    fantastic article! So glad you wrote this
    well arguedRecommend

  • madiha
    Jul 29, 2011 - 4:24PM

    I think there are two issues that are getting confused her. Do we scrutinize what Hina Rabbani wears because a) she is a woman or b) an elected official?

    What she wears in her personal capacity is none of our business, but when she is on a state trip as an elected official representing a country that is beset and crippled with violence, an economic crisis and serial failure of public institutions, it is at minimum quiet insensitive and at worse extremely crass to be studded in such designer bling. It is not just Pakistan, around the world leaders AND their spouses are making conscious efforts to be appear understated in their personal tastes and expenditures. (SamCam has a Vogue editor for a sister, but makes a conscious effort to be seen in Highstreet, same goes for Michelle Obama)

    At the same time while we may not harp with the same intensity at Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s dapper suits, it is not because we are chauvinistic people. From Palin’s Nieman Marcus fiasco to Hillary’s much disproved pant suits – woman in politics naturally pay the price by being micro-scrutinized for their personal appearance alot more than the men. In that sense HRK is not an exception.Recommend

  • Maira
    Jul 29, 2011 - 5:01PM

    What a superficial analysis – really immature.
    “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.” What a laugh – a law degree vs hospitality – if you dont know the difference then you are even less qualified to write this piece than you have proved.

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  • Ali
    Jul 29, 2011 - 5:03PM

    Oh dear – what a poor analysis – Qureshi’s tie and feudal background did not matter because he had the experience and credentials.
    A huge gap in this piece – what a low standard of debate when even the obvious argument is not taken head on.

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  • Abbas from the US
    Jul 29, 2011 - 5:26PM

    A number of comments suggest a right educational background as well as experience in foreign policy issues should be the stepping stone for someone to fill in this position. The face of the foreign minister of Pakistan is also the face the world sees apart from whoever may be at the apex. Most Muslim states have their politics mired in religion, which is already retrogressive for any female aspirant into the world of politics from this region.

    Khar comes across as a fresh face with at least a good education even if not completely matched for the job. This in comparison to the overall situation where a significant number of women have none. The last thing that would have been appreciated by the global community needing to interact diplomatically with Pakistan, and international media which manages to reinforce perceptions would have been a traditional bearded male. And there is a preponderence of the same visible on the political horizon and the public face of Pakistan.

    As for experience in foreign affairs and the requirement for Pakistan’s global diplomatic outreach. The policy issues are still being decided and directed from Rawalpindi. An acceptable female diplomatic face to the international community, as well as someone who can articulate the positions well in the tradition of Qureshi even if they are handed down would be considered absolutely desirable for Pakistan at this point. Specially a Pakistan that is increasingly being viewed by the West with suspicion as unrelenting supporters of the misogynist forces getting ready to reclaim the government in Kabul.

    The continuation of baby steps that Quereshi may have initiated with considerable apparent sophistication and Khar will continue to demonstrate, will serve as further evidence of the continued strengthening of civilian control over Pakistan’s foreign affairs. In short this is a welcome appointment and cause for celeberation for the cause of womanhood in Pakisrtan. No matter what the designer trappings indicate as discouraging to many.

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  • Murad Ahmed
    Jul 30, 2011 - 2:44AM

    @Forbidden Fruit:
    Women are turned into objects, so you say?
    But, women love objects and read their status by acquisitions.
    By that definition, men who seek external markers of success,
    are also failures. And the media eulogises them as achievers.
    Such men and women both are objects.
    Hina Khar and
    Shah Mehmood Qureishi are the same bankrupt elites, just in
    gendered packets.

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  • Cynical
    Jul 30, 2011 - 3:40AM

    What’s wrong with being beautiful and elegant? and being complimented for that?
    People who get offended are the sexist ones, not the ones who see things as they are.

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  • Jawad Iqbal Jawad
    Jul 30, 2011 - 11:22AM

    The writer is absolutely right. We are a frustrated and idle society. We take woman as commodity and not a human being. That is the core issue and mother of all problems. But women themselves are also responsible for this to a great extent. Instead of proving their mettle either they prove themselves as weaker sex or they depend on foul play.

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  • Lila
    Jul 31, 2011 - 8:04PM

    There’s a huge difference between a tie that costs a couple of hundred dollars and a bag that costs a couple of thousand (many many thousands actually). The fact that she was toting such an expensive bag is a reflection of pure stupidity but I am optimistic she will not repeat such a major faux pas. All of this being said, I agree with the author that it’s not fair to judge Hina on her looks and clothes (esp since our last FM was just as dapper, as the author rightly points out and that this was lauded rather than criticized). I want to know what Hina SAID and DID in India, not what she wore… But I’m afraid if that were the focus, we wouldn’t be getting such good press (I’ve seen a couple of her interviews and she did not come across particularly bright). For now, maybe we should celebrate the good press we’re getting for a change. It’s just that such an important post is given to someone with so little experience is frightening – but then I look at the rest of our gov’t and I see she’s actually the best of the lot, probably… even MORE frightening…

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  • mehriene
    Aug 3, 2011 - 3:02AM

    @Pasha:
    You really think a degree in Hospitality and Tourism makes Hina competent to fight Pakistan’s case ? She’s been in govt for the past 8 yrs (5 yrs with Musharraf and 3yrs with the present govt)…what exactly have been her “achievements”? Please do enlighten us !

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