March Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 19 years ago

“Sorry, no photographs, we are women officers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” Seven of them might be ambassadors in countries around the globe, and they comprise almost 10 per cent of the ministry’s 408-strength cadre, but no photographs are provided of the 39 women by Riffat Masood, director at the ministry headquarters, because “permission” to obtain them would be a lengthy and delicate process, she says, even while demonstrating no qualms about giving me hers. It is, however, a promise she does not make good: the photo never arrived.

Nonetheless, Riffat, a 20-year veteran of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, is easy to talk to, despite the fact that as Director in the personnel division she is clearly overworked, seldom finding a moment even to just sit behind her desk. While waiting for her to arrive from yet another ‘meeting,’ I glance around her office. On her desk lies a photograph of two lovely young girls, probably her daughters. It isn’t hard to discern: here is a proud mother. Most of the other offices in the ministry — the former Sheherezade Hotel — I notice, apart from a couple on the third floor, are plain depressing. Not unlike the country’s foreign policy. However, with the new building coming up, Foreign Office officials may have some reason to lighten up.

Treading the worn-out carpets in the building I wonder whether after a change of residence, the ministry’s hitherto ‘permanent fixtures’ will survive the move. For instance, there is the tall and imposing Majid, the bearded security guard from the Islamabad police, whose customary politeness disarms even the rudest journalist. Then there are the dainty vegetable samosas at the Foreign Office cafeteria which are the staple diet for starving hacks who are called in to attend briefings at the oddest of hours. These savouries have, just like Majid, retained their flavour for decades.

But there have been some changes recently, which are too irritating to ignore. New ‘security’ concerns make manoeuverability in a car difficult once you enter the premises. Fresh cement blocks have been laid out in a configuration that requires the skills of a stunt driver to weave one’s way through. One can actually sympathise with VIPs trying to negotiate the mean curves. And what, I wonder, would happen in the event of a ‘situation’ that required an immediate exit?

Although there has always been a presence of women in the ministry, in a positive turn of events, their numbers are actually increasing. And even while it is difficult to access their photographs, the electronic media has recently been focusing on the women in key positions at the ministry.

Seated in Riffat’s office I also witness a demonstration of their increasing clout. “You do not have a single mark but you claim you were down with chicken pox,” says Riffat Masood sternly to a young diplomat who had disappeared from office for a while. In fact, authority clearly comes easily to Riffat, whose office has more traffic than Tariq Road on any normal day.

Still, the women at the Foreign Office, some of whom merit the description “cream of the ministry,” wonder if one of “theirs” will climb any further in the official hierarchy .

“Presently Fauzia Nasreen, a grade 21 officer, is our ambassador in Warsaw. Let us see if she makes it to the office of additional secretary when she returns. She will be the first one to claim this title if promoted,” says Riffat. The other 21- grader is Asma Anisa, currently serving as ambassador in Beirut. So why is it that women have been denied senior positions in the ministry? There can be no arguing with their capabilities, but current Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmud Kasuri and former Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokar were two of perhaps just a handful of men in decision-making positions at the ministry, who did not hesitate to acknowledge the fact. And while their entirely professional attention was always welcome, discloses one woman ministry officer, there were other men — some in senior positions — whose attentions the women could well have done without!

Interestingly the situation was not always so bleak. In the ’70s — the Bhutto years — one diplomat, Farida Shah, actually made it to the post of additional secretary.

Then came General Zia-ul-Haq, who besides having several discriminatory laws against women introduced during his tenure, also decreed in an unwritten law that single women in the Foreign Affairs Ministry should be denied foreign postings. Many women, including the courageous Asma Nisa and Seema Baloch, fought back, but some women resigned in protest. And as a result, fewer women demonstrated interest in joining this service. The late poet, Parveen Shakir, an outstanding CSP officer, who was already undergoing training at the Civil Services Academy with a view to joining the Foreign Office, in fact, asked for another ministry. Her change of heart reportedly owed to the fact that she had gotten married in the meanwhile, and felt that could be detrimental to career advancement in this service.

Marriage does undoubtedly play a significant role in the lives of women officers. “For women here, the social and cultural situation is very difficult. A Foreign Office woman’s spouse will always be number two, as the focus, especially if the she is posted abroad, is on her. That doesn’t go down too well in our society, so many women have opted out of the service,” says Riffat Masood. “The other problem is the family structure — foreign postings often mean divided families and nomadic living,” she adds.

However, in the late ’80s women started returning to the Foreign Office. At first it was just two to three joining every year, but the ’90s registered a steady increase.

And increasingly also, Foreign Office women are making their voices heard. One Pakistani woman diplomat, for example, walked out of an American reception while abroad because of what she claimed was a “humiliating” security check. She received an apology the next day. She has also made a strong pitch to the ministry that the issuance of Pakistani visas from the capital she is based in should be at par with the ones that the host country issues to Pakistanis — a figure that is presently negligible.

And do their Indian counterparts abroad, with their beautiful saris and bindis, give our women in the field tough competition? “Not at all. There is no one-upmanship with the Indian cadre. In fact, while abroad, especially at the UN, I observed that after the European and American women it is the Asians — and that definitely includes us, Pakistani women — who are most outspoken and outshine all the others,” says Riffat.

So will Pakistan finally have its first woman Foreign Secretary? One woman nearly made it to the office of the Foreign Minister, even though she was not from the cadre.

All eyes now are on Fauzia Nasreen.