Being a woman in Pakistan can be challenging at times. Being an extraordinarily successful woman in Pakistan can be slightly more challenging. In many ways, Sherry Rehman is a trailblazer for what Pakistani women can achieve in public life. Sherry is arguably one of the most successful female Pakistani politicians alive today and incidentally doesn’t draw her political capital from her husband or father’s name. In a country where politicians are demonized for putting the pursuit of power over principles, Sherry famously resigned from her post as Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting on a principled stance to protect media freedoms in the country. She served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States at a sensitive time in our relationship with the world’s only superpower. She also serves as the Chairperson of the Jinnah Institute, a non-partisan public policy think tank committed to the strengthening of democracy and governance. My first question to her: of all the different roles you’ve played in public life, what has been your most rewarding achievement?
“You forgot journalism. I did that for 15 years, well before I entered politics,” Sherry replies, reminiscing about her original love – journalism – without missing a beat. “Being editor of the Herald was the most rewarding and fulfilling time of my professional life, as I learnt a lot, and felt I was helping define the national discourse. Being an MNA was a close second, though, as politics is hard, especially if you want to retain integrity, but it is the only real vehicle, via political parties of course, for effecting real change.”
There is a critical dilemma that most young Pakistani reformers are facing today. Should we bring change in society by becoming part of the system and reforming from the inside or should we agitate for change from the outside? I questioned Sherry about a provocative mission statement on her website, which defines the audacious life she’s chosen to lead: ‘In difficult times, not just new ideas but the power to realize them.’ What drives you in life, I asked Sherry?
“What drives me in life is the need to give back to my community, my nation,” Sherry shares. “My identity is Pakistan, good or bad, and I need to stand here and do whatever I can in the trenches, with my limited resources and time, but I will certainly die trying. It’s not an easy space to live in for an outspoken, progressive woman, but look at all the people less fortunate around us. Struggling to make ends meet, fearful of being persecuted for their faith, so many vulnerable to so much. We can’t just look out for ourselves and not make the tough, imperfect choices public life demands of one. It’s far easier and purer to write about the best options than to be in politics, but even the increment of change is worth the lifetime of struggle.”
Sherry is always on the move. The first time I called her for this interview, she happened to be in Kabul for high level meetings with the Afghan government on anti-terror cooperation. There is a method to the madness when it comes to her restless schedule and philosophy on politics. “Governments and political parties have a huge responsibility to lead nations out of crisis,” Sherry shares. “We must crank up our democratic and delivery systems to be more responsive to public needs.”
Next, I ask her what advice she has for Pakistani women who want to pursue their dreams and become trail blazers in their own right. “I often mentor young Pakistani women,” she shares. “The first thing I tell them is not to let anyone else define who you are, let alone what you want to be. Find paths to small goals, step by step, don’t be deterred by reversals and roadblocks or people who diminish your confidence. If you want to be taken seriously at the workplace, bring your ideas and energy to work, and never forget that you have a right to ask for what you deserve. You are lucky if you get what you are entitled to, but if you don’t, hanging back is not the way. Ask for your rights, your space, and your entitlements, both at home and at work.”
The purpose of this article is to find and share inspirational stories about everyday Pakistani heroes (if you know someone who should be profiled, send us a tweet @Mbilallakhani). If we don’t share these stories about Pakistan, no one else will.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 21st, 2015.