13 April 2012
Just one year ago, Shehrbano “Sherry” Rehman, Pakistan’s newly appointed Ambassador to the United States, was receiving two death threats an hour. A prominent Islamist cleric in her native city of Karachi had issued a fatwa calling for her to be killed, and effigies of the liberal Member of the National Assembly were being burned at rallies. Unable to travel without risk of assassination, Rehman was forced to live under self-imposed house arrest with armed guards surrounding her home.
Rehman, a veteran of President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), earned the ire of Pakistan’s Islamists in November 2010 when she introduced legislation to reform Pakistan’s harsh and oft-misused blasphemy laws. The laws, which make it a capital crime to criticize the prophet Mohammed, have long been used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal scores.
When two of her allies, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minorities minister and lone Christian in Pakistan’s Parliament, were gunned down early last year, it appeared Rehman’s days were numbered if she stayed in Pakistan.
It was not the first time Rehman had been on the receiving end of extremist attacks however. In 2007 she was riding in a car with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto when a suicide bomber attacked their convoy. Both women survived, but Rehman still bares the burn scars on her back. When Bhutto was shot to death just weeks later, Rehman was following a few cars behind.
After the assassination of her colleagues and the threats to her life last year, many of her friends and her affluent family urged her to leave. Despite her considerable means and contacts, she refused to leave Pakistan under threat. In March 2011 the cover of Newsweek Pakistan proclaimed her “Pakistan’s Most Important Woman.”
Eventually, she reemerged, but her return was short-lived. In November, Ambassador Husain Haqqani resigned amidst the high-profile “memogate” scandal, for which he stands accused of directing a Pakistani-American businessman to transmit a memo to US officials requesting support in ousting Pakistan’s military leadership. When Haqqani was recalled to Islamabad to face viscous media attacks and a Supreme Court inquiry, Rehman was chosen, and after her endorsement process was expedited, she presented her credentials in January.
The Zardari administration has thus deployed a hardened party veteran to its most important diplomatic battleground. In Rehman they have an Ambassador who does not cringe under threat, and is a media-savvy and principled communicator with a background in journalism and political messaging. The military, which has no official role in approving diplomats but almost certainly vetted Rehman independently, likely sees a national security wonk with a clearly articulated and moderate policy perspective. To the Pakistani people, Rehman is a courageous social reformer and consensus builder, with a proven record of having their human rights and security squarely in mind.
A Country of Gender Contradictions
While there was some surprise at Rehman’s appointment because of her strong advocacy for civilian rule, the appointment of a woman is not in itself unexpected. Rehman is the third female ambassador to the US, and she joins an impressive group of prominent Pakistani women who have risen to critical diplomatic and political posts and set precedents for women in Muslim countries. In the 1950s Pakistan sent the first ever Muslim woman delegate to the UN and appointed its first of many female Ambassadors. In 2008, the National Assembly elected the first woman Speaker from a Muslim country, and last year Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani appointed Hina Khar to serve as Pakistan’s first female Minister of Foreign Affairs. According to prominent political talk show host and journalist, Nasim Zerha, a longtime friend of Rehman’s, “gender is not a barrier to women entering security positions. We have women flying combat jets now. The only place you don’t see women yet is in the military command.”
Perhaps the most influential historical figure on the list of Pakistan’s powerful female diplomats and politicians however, is the late Bhutto, who in 1988 became the first woman elected to lead a Muslim nation. Rehman describes Bhutto as her political “guru” and “a force of nature,” that personally convinced her to join the PPP and enter politics.
The two glamorous, wealthy women first came to know each other during Bhutto’s second term, when she would hold monthly discourses with Rehman and other journalists. When Rehman retired from 20 years in journalism and moved to London, Bhutto visited her often, grooming the writer for her entrance into the political arena. Rehman became a Member of Pakistan’s National Assembly in 2002, and says that Bhutto would call regularly from exile in Dubai to discuss policy and strategy with her PPP protégé.
Unlike most of her colleagues in the National Assembly however, Rehman was not directly elected. Instead, she was appointed by the PPP under a constitutional quota that reserves 17 percent of seats in parliament for women. The reserved seats are allocated to each party in proportion to the general election results, and the parties then select the women representatives.
While women currently hold just 22 percent of the National Assembly seats, a 2011 report by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency found that these female representatives have been far more active and politically independent than their male counterparts, introducing 25 percent more non-partisan Private Members’ Bills and moving a disproportionate 40 percent of all resolutions passed.
But Pakistan is a country of contradictions, and the status of women is amongst them. Pakistan’s constitution officially upholds the equal rights and treatment of all persons, but the reality looks quite different for many Pakistani women. Despite nominally equal rights, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks Pakistan 94th out of 124 countries on it’s Social Institutions and Gender Index. “Discriminatory traditions and norms prevail” and limit women’s ability to exercise their civil liberties, govern their families, own property, and seek protection from sexual and domestic violence, the OECD concludes, noting the prevalence of “customary forms of violence,” including spousal rape, dowry-related violence, and honor killings.
As in other South Asian countries, the influence of class is critical in Pakistani politics and may underlie the apparent gender paradox. In his 2011 book Pakistan: A Hard Country, author Anatol Lieven specifically cautions against interpreting the political achievements of upper class Pakistani women as a reflection of gender equality. According to Lieven, “Since the kinship group is the most important force in society, the power of kinship is inevitably reflected in the political system […] The phenomenon of a woman such as Benazir Bhutto rising to the top of the political system in an extremely conservative male-dominated society […] says not much more about ordinary women’s rights in modern Pakistani society than the inheritance of the throne by Queens Mary and Elizabeth from their father said about ordinary women’s rights in sixteenth-century English society.”
A Diplomatic Triple Threat
Rehman’s own privileged background and subsequent U.S. education appear to have directly influenced her passion for women’s issues. Lorna Blake, the former Director of Admissions at Smith College, the women’s liberal arts college where Rehman received her bachelor’s degree, told Diplomatic Courier that Rehman told her after graduating that “she had learned what it meant to be an independent woman at Smith. She said she was going to go back to Pakistan and was going to work for women’s rights.” During her decade of service in Parliament, Rehman did just that.
Prior to authoring the blasphemy reform bill, Rehman had introduced and advocated for numerous other controversial pieces of legislation, including the Anti-Honor Killings Bill, the Domestic Violence Prevention Bill, and the repeal of Pakistan’s Hudood Ordinance, which until 2006 placed the burden of proof in rape cases on the victims and left them vulnerable to prosecution for adultery or extramarital fornication.
Rehman was also active in moving bills to increase press freedom, and was appointed Minister of Information and Broadcasting in 2008. “She was quite an effective spokesperson,” says Dr. Farhat Haq, who Chairs the Political Science Department at Monmouth College and studies Pakistani gender politics. After twenty years as a media professional and PPP Information Secretary, “she understood how to respond to the tumultuous media environment.” But the former journalist also made a promise to resign if any attempts were made to censor the media. One year into her term, when President Zardari proposed restrictions on the media’s coverage of protests, Rehman stepped down. “Her status really increased when she actually kept her promise of giving up power,” says Haq.
In addition to her commitment to women’s rights and press freedom, there is a third pillar of Rehman’s resume, her national security credentials, that makes her the ideal Ambassador right now. In 2008 Rehman made Pakistani history when she delivered a comprehensive briefing on terrorism to a joint session of Parliament, leading to the adoption of Pakistan’s first official consensus on the issue, the Joint Resolution on Terrorism.
Rehman is also the founding Chair of the Jinnah Institute, a national security think tank that helped author a groundbreaking consensus report expressing the “perceptions of Pakistan’s foreign policy elite.” The report lays out support for a Pakistani role in an Afghan-led reconciliation process and a power-sharing agreement between the Afghan Taliban and government, both policies that appear to mesh well with Pakistan’s military establishment. “There is a general sense that the military is comfortable with her, whereas they were not at all comfortable with Haqqani,” says Haq.
According to Ms. Zerha, Rehman’s background as a human rights-focused parliamentarian and journalist have produced a far more “eclectic and non-traditional approach to national security” than seen with her predecessors. With U.S.-Pakistan relations at an all-time low after a year of increased drone strikes; the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor; and the U.S. cross-border raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, an unorthodox approach may be just what the countries need to repair a badly damaged relationship.
An Uphill Battle
Less than a week after Ambassador Rehman’s appointment, tensions spiked even higher when a NATO attack on a Pakistani border post left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead. The attack, along with Pakistan’s increasingly divergent strategic interests in the ongoing Afghan reconciliation process, initiated a full parliamentary review of Pakistani policy towards the U.S. Until that review is complete, Ambassador Rehman has declined to speak with any U.S. media, and it remains to be seen what her first major orders of business will be.
What does seem clear however, is that in the interest of preventing the total collapse of relations between the allies-cum-adversaries, Ambassador Rehman’s personal campaign for gender equality may have to be sidelined during her time in Washington. “Being Ambassador is going to constrain her in terms of trying to get more U.S. support for women’s issues in Pakistan,” says Dr. Haq. “Her background helps a lot in terms of her credibility in Washington, but she certainly won’t be able to focus on those issues.”
Thus, having risked her life to stay in Pakistan and continue her work in Parliament, Rehman has been called to the international stage to articulate an as-yet-unknown new policy towards the U.S., and in doing so postpone her work on women’s issues. The Ambassador has overcome attempts on her life and broken through major gender barriers in Pakistan, but the job of Ambassador may yet be the greatest challenge she has faced. It remains to be seen whether the courageous politician will be able to faithfully represent her weakened civilian government without following her predecessor by losing the support of Pakistan’s politically influential military leaders or falling afoul of its famously fickle media.
Boris Maguire is a Production Associate for a DC-based non-profit where he works on a State Department-funded partnership initiative with major Pakistani news networks. He previously served on the staff of the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, assisting with congressional hearings and oversight investigations of military contracts in South Asia. He also spent a year as a high school teacher in the Dominican Republic. Boris completed the Congressional Security Scholars program at the Truman National Security Project and received a BA in Political Science and History from Duke University.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April edition.