by Shehrbano Taseer
The surname of 33-year-old Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar usually walks into the room before she does. She is the niece of Ghulam Mustafa Khar, a colorful former chief minister and governor of thePunjaband one of the founding members of the PPP, to which she now belongs. “He is essentially the whole Khar name,” that, she says, is “obviously misinterpreted” with the concept of feudalism. “I refuse to be hurt by anything which is mine,” she say of her name, “I think one should be proud of whatever they are.”
Khar may hail from a wealthy, politically-connected landowning family, but don’t call her a feudal. “I can tell you that some people who are rural based—I don’t want to call them feudal—are much more sensitive to the needs of people, it’s like a big family. You feel ownership. If they have a problem, it’s your problem.” “I don’t agree with these stereotypical definitions, the truth is often different.”
The fifth of eight siblings, Khar is closest to her father, Ghulam Rabbani Khar, and describes herself as a Daddy’s Girl.
She has a degree in economics from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and one in hospitality management from U-Mass, Amherst. It was at LUMS where she met her polo-playing textile-scion husband, Feroze Gulzar, with whom she has two daughters she drops at school every morning. “My husband is very good about this,” she says about her decision not to take his name after marriage, “in fact, he was upset when his sister changed hers.”
After college Khar tried her hand at business, but her orchids export business to Germany was short-lived even if it was, she says, a “great experience.” A few years later she set up Lahore’s Polo Lounge with Asma Ramday, daughter-in-law of a recently retired Supreme Court justice. “I was at the Polo Club one day—I used to play polo—and the club’s president was talking about having a restaurant open there. So we bid for it, we lost, and then we rebid.” The venture is doing well and just opened a branch in Islamabad, but Khar has not been greatly involved. “I’ve been busy,” she says. “I was choosing a bit of design stuff, furniture, paint. It’s a 24-hour job running a restaurant and my poor partner has been running the show. I will make up for it when I get the time.”
Her time has been taken up by politics, which, she says, “just happened.” Khar’s father couldn’t contest the 2002 elections because he never went to college—a requirement under the then rules—and tapped her to run. “This common myth, that only if there is no older boy can a daughter emerge politically, doesn’t hold true for my family,” she says. She won her National Assembly seat in 2002 with a small three-figure lead, her father and older brother having stumped in their conservative hometown of Muzaffargarh for her. “I am not hiding that I did not campaign for myself. That’s it. That’s the reality,” she says. Six years later she did campaign, and she won by a 34,082-vote margin—a virtual landslide. “If that isn’t good enough then I don’t know what is,” she says, referring to criticism of her as a privileged political ingénue.
Khar points out that her storied uncle, Mustafa, hasn’t won an election for the past 20 years. “I was not in the PPP before because my uncle was, and politically we had never gotten along, so we almost had to be in a different party from him,” she says. Khar was a member of President Musharraf’s economic team that oversaw a uniquely prosperous five years for Pakistan. She joined the PPP after the pro-Musharraf party, Pakistan Muslim League (now part of the coalition government in Islamabad) denied her a ticket. “The PPP certainly goes out of its way to pick up serious and hardworking women who are qualified and dedicated,” she says, speaking specifically about the National Assembly speaker, Fahmida Mirza.
Khar has focused much of her legislative attention on economic affairs. She has put together a policy framework to narrow the gap between donor demands and the requirements of the government. “Donors must make sure foreign assistance coming intoPakistanis not driven by what the flavor of the month is at their headquarters, but what the government ofPakistanhas outlined,” she says. And she’s lobbied successfully to make the statistics division an autonomous, depoliticized body. “In foreign policy and in economic policy you need a bit of consistency,” she says. For a country that has had five finance ministers over the last three years, this may be a tall order. And she is quick to acknowledge the problem. “International lenders are not exceptionally happy about it, but neither are we,” she says.
She is none too pleased with the off-topic reviews of her first big test as foreign minister either. Khar met her Indian counterpart, S. M. Krishna, inNew Delhilast month in the first formal, minister-level engagement since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. What made headlines, however, were the semiotics, not the substance, of the talks. “Whatever goals and expectations we went with toIndia, we achieved,” she says. This includes a commitment toward facilitating greater trade and travel between Pakistan- and Indian-administered parts ofKashmirand keeping the talks going. Instead, what made headlines on both sides of the border were her accessories: the Cavalli shades, the Mikimoto pearls, the diamond bracelet—and that $10,000 handmade Birkin bag.
“People were calling it the Ministry of Fashion Affairs,” says Khar, “I am very comfortable with the fact that I am much more than that.” Khar defines herself by what she brings to her work as a minister. “You have to work twice as hard being a woman in our society.” Pakistani op-ed writers have used Birkin-gate to paint Khar as an out-of-touch prima donna, criticizing her for being too young, too pampered, too much of an establishment girl. Blogging for Gloria Steinem-founded Ms. magazine, one accused her of “moral profligacy” and for never “advocating for Pakistani women.” The writer went on to dub her ascension to foreign minister, risibly and dramatically, as something that “forever maligns feminism inPakistan and other Muslim countries.”
Does she see herself as a role model for Pakistani women? “I don’t know if I can answer that, others will have to see if I am,” she says. Khar, who is not one for high-decibel publicity, has avoided using sound bites to shine a light on her and her family’s work for women. “I feel what really makes a difference, and this is something I’m proud of, is the school my mother is running for 200 girls in our village,” she says. “I was being interviewed and someone said, ‘Your father is against schools,’ and I started laughing and thought, poor thing, he’s the one who’s managing it.” Khar has also set up a vocational training center to economically empower women in her village. “We sell hand-embroidered work to nationwide labels like Khaadi, the women get great returns,” she says. “For me, that is real societal change.” Khar hopes to expand this not-for-profit business beyond her village.
Khar has also been accused of having been handpicked by Pakistan’s powerful Army, which runs the country’s defense and foreign policies, as a sort of Manchurian foreign minister. “The Army does not run our foreign policy,” she says, firmly. “They are important stakeholders and not an outside force, so we should stop viewing them as such. After all the institutions are taken onboard, a view emerges, and that is the government’s view, which is Pakistan’s view.” What of the Army and Inter-Services Intelligence’s historical ties with militant groups, especially those fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir? “We sometimes overrate the role of the military and overrate their intentions especially when it comes to India,” she says. “Let’s not be burdened by our history. Let’s move forward. I think Pakistan has learnt its lessons.”
Some of those lessons will show in how Khar, as foreign minister, manages relations with Afghanistan, theU.S., andIndia. For her, Afghanistan is the most pressing matter. After the Soviets left in the 1980s, “we were left to pick the pieces, we were left with 3 million-plus Afghan refugees to take care of, who have become a part of our country and system, and there have been so many issues that have erupted as a result,” she says. “Anything that happens there will cross over, just look at how Pakistan has been bogged down by what has been happening in Afghanistan for the past 30 years.” What she would like to see happening alongside theU.S.pullout is for the emergence of a “sovereign, independent Afghanistan at peace with itself no matter who is in power.”
Khar also wants to redefine relations with theU.S., its biggest aid donor. “This aid syndrome is overemphasized, given too much importance and misrepresented,” she says. “It undermines Pakistan’s importance when you say that assistance from theU.S.is all that defines our relationship, there is more to our relationship than just what comes in.” She categorizes the recent up and down in relations with the US as “operational problems” and maintains that things are not as bad as are being reported in the press. “It is important to go through some difficult phases, as we are going through right now, to get some clarity for the future so that your relationship is not forever defined by lack of clarity and lack of understanding of real expectations. We should stop talking about the disappointments, because those are on both sides.”
Khar likes to keep it simple. “We really overcomplicate things for ourselves in this country,” she says. “I tell my people at the Foreign Office that when we enter a meeting we must have two objectives that we want to achieve by the end of it, not 20. If we think everything is a priority then we mean nothing is a priority.” This outlook seems to have served her well on her India visit. “The dialogue process with India should be uninterrupted and uninterruptable, and the environment we found there was exceptionally healthy. That to me was the biggest confidence-building measure.”
The success she finds in her new job will depend on forces beyond her control but not beyond her ken. In her focus and quiet-mannered stride toward the possible, she will have deserved that place on the Foreign Office wall as much if not more than any man before her.
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Why Does Masood Hasan Criticize Hina?
By Masood Hasan
HRK – Hina Rabbani Khar is drop dead gorgeous.
Her three day fashion onslaught has left the Indians gasping for breath and ambulances howling all over the countryside.
Here we are crooning with delight – the men exchanging high fives, the women – the sensible ones that is, shaking their heads slowly from side to side.
Is HRK the nuclear device that we promised we’d explode over the Indian capital? Have we scored a major diplomatic victory over arch enemyIndia? Is HRK going to lead the country armed with nothing but a Hermes bag and change global policies with a snap of her diamond encrusted fingers? As the euphoria subsides and her Birkin bag is safely stowed away along with her undoubtedly large Hermes collection, we, the ordinary riff-raff of this despondently poor country need to take a good long look at the events surrounding her visit. If we don’t, rest assured the lollypops inIslamabadcertainly won’t. Introspection is not as fashionable as Roberto Cavalli shades.
Let’s get one thing straight. One dresses for the occasion. Anyone recall Angelina Jolie’s ‘designer’ outfits on her many visits to the Afghan camps? There is a time and place for all things. I think HRK didn’t quite get that right. She has many things going for her but maturity and a sense of balance seem to be virtues that Pakistan’s new foreign minister does not care about much.
It is amazing that the old hands at Hotel Scherezade that masquerades as Pakistan’s foreign office thought little of actually ‘briefing’ Lady Bond before she flew in her special aircraft to New Delhi. (No PIA please. That’s for the plebs). Did anyone tell her what precisely was her mission, if any on her maiden voyage to India? I doubt it. While she must have spent an enormous amount of time choosing her wardrobe and accessories – she has a talent for accessories as a gushing designer confided, one wishes there were men or women who could have briefed her on how she must conduct herself – but this is unlikely in a country where ‘yes sir, yes sir, three bags full’, is the most successful strategy.
As it is the ‘success’ of her trip is best summed up in the joint communiqué glued eternally together with Fevikol, the wonder Indian adhesive, that both sides will stick to their points of view. As before one might add. Sure we can talk till the cows come home but that much has more or less been there almost always, so those crooning about a ‘great diplomatic victory’, need a knock on the head administered by Mr Ijaz Butt. Having demolished cricket, he now has the world’s largest bat collection.
Indiamay be many things to many people but even the most vitriolic Indian-haters grudgingly accept that our two countries are now worlds apart – poles apart will no longer do justice to the real on-ground situation.
The Indians are suave diplomats and they manage – with all its warts, the world’s largest democracy.
Whether this is for public consumption or genuinely felt, there is a strong current of simplicity that runs across Indiaand does not require 3-D glasses to see. All of us who have travelled to Indiahave been surprised by their casual attitude to attire given most days. We who are so class and caste conscious on the other hand must display all the banal outer vestments since we value these far more than any principles.
The Indians thus dress so simply that you can mistake them for minions whereas they may be billionaires. They go to work in loose sandals and creased trousers or faded jeans but sit and make strategic decisions that run into billions of dollars and have the power to change the direction of their huge country. Simplicity is not a put on like our constant bowing and scraping to the Maker without any meaning or sincerity. Our rulers and high stake rollers live in mansions of glory. Indians richer than their counterparts here live in modest homes. Retired generals there live in small houses or high rise flats whereas our medal laden over-fed blobs lord it over topping all records of ostentation. Time and again you are flattened by this simplicity on display in India– if it’s a put on, my God they should give a Lifetime Achievement Award to all the affluent and influential people who live there.
It is in this context that one finds HRK’s jaunt into India nauseating and in gross bad taste. Did she go to a tense foreign ministers’ meeting or launch a fashion show? Did she read up on India? She represents an impoverished country, now permanently and shamelessly begging day and night for sustenance, for alms, for mercy to keep Ms Khar and her ilk in clover. She is part of one of the most disastrous governments it has been our misfortune to have – incompetent, brazen, cruel and corrupt. When it is knocked out sooner or later, no one will shed tears for the fallen leaders who have given loot and plunder a new dimension adding to that great robbery repertoire fine tuned to an art by their predecessors.
HRK’s government boasts of a two percent growth rate against India’s nine percent, has no power or gas and soon will have no water. It groans under loans, yet gives walloping funding to keep the ‘khakis’ happy, depriving millions of men, women and children such basics as health, education and sanctity of life yet live like kings. Its representatives like HRK and 24 other ministers in 2010 paid no income tax because they were poor. HRK coughed up Rs 7,500 agricultural tax and declared that she couldn’t even afford a car! I suppose BMWs and Mercs must fall under the ‘donkey’ category.
She should have perhaps studied tapes on Sonia Gandhi who is always in cotton saris, her hair pulled back and with hardly any make up. You would not catch Sonia dead with a garish and ridiculously priced, diamond-laden wrist watch (Arab style) or pricey south sea pearls and $ 900 Jimmy Choo shoes, but then that’s Sonia and this is Hina – chalk and cheese with Devonshire in between. When the PM who spends more time on his clothes than on the pressing needs of his wretched country went to Paris and called upon the French president, he ensured that he was all trussed up in a reportedly $ 10,000 suit. Lady Bond, although it was evening had her designer shades perched on top of her pretty head. Babes out partying might do so for a lark but FMs with feudal blood coursing through their veins should avoid such nonsense. What a fantastic thing it would have been had she chosen to dress most simply, travelled by her national airline and told the Indians that she was here, in all humility and sincerity to move on and build bridges for the generations ahead. She should have said my country is struggling – with terrorism, suicide bombers, law and order, the Afghan problem, a poor economy and so on but that we would prevail if there is peace.
But then this is the stuff dreams are made of. In real life nothing like that happens – not here and we lost yet another opportunity to tell the world we are not shallow buffoons and idiots.
Pakistanis are blaming the Indian media and Ms Khar left Islamabad in a huff, but when you set yourself up as she did, what is the media going to make of that? The ‘fash frat’ as one Indian newspaper said, had a field day and we had the customary egg on our face.