Women doing better in foreign service but have a long way to go
ISLAMABAD, March 7,2005: While women in Pakistan Foreign Service have gained ground and visibility in key posts compared to say just a decade ago, they still have a long way to go.
Talk to women officers at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and they will tell you that things are better for them today but left a lot to be desired. Ask their male colleagues and they will say women officers have never had it so good. Facts and figures show that truth lies somewhere between the two positions.
According to figures obtained by this correspondent, of the 408 officers at the MFA only 39 are women. The gender imbalance is partly due to the fact that fewer women opt for foreign service, an average of two every year.
Of the 39 women officers, 19 are currently working at the headquarters in Islamabad and 20 are posted abroad. At the headquarters, women officers are working in grade 17 to 20 positions, five each as directors-general, directors and deputy directors and four as assistant directors.
Nineteen women officers are currently posted at various missions abroad, while one is training overseas. Of the 19 women posted as diplomats, seven lead their respective missions as ambassadors, one holds the office of deputy head of the mission, two of ministers, three of counsellors, one of first secretary, three of second secretaries and one of third secretary.
The figures show that more women have been serving in the mission abroad since the nineties. This came on the heels of a bad patch for women when General Ziaul Haq banned the postings abroad of single women in the eighties.
Notably, not one of the women posted at the headquarters is in the top echelons of Foreign Office. All of the seven posts of additional secretaries are held by their male colleagues who occupy the ministry’s most pampered third floor along with the foreign secretary, the foreign minister and the minister of state for foreign affairs.
No woman has occupied the slot of an additional secretary since 1987. One woman officer who reached that stage in 2003 was packed off to the National Defence College in Islamabad to be on the directing staff. Later, she was posted as ambassador in Beirut. Ms Fauzia Nasreen, Pakistan’s ambassador in Warsaw, who is due to return later this year will now be the first test case.
“It is basically an old boys club. They love you as section officers, can take you as deputy directors and directors, can’t stand you as directors-general and will never want to have you as additional secretaries,” is how a high-ranking Pakistani woman diplomat summed up this phenomenon some time back.
The fact that there is no woman additional secretary is reflective of the lack of women professionals’ voice in key foreign policy matters. The standard practice is that the foreign secretary consults the additional secretaries for any policy input.
Women officers have seldom been appointed in visible power- wielding administrative posts, or given key slots as the ministry’s spokesperson or chief of protocol. These have been the exclusive domain of their male colleagues. There is no rule that bars women from holding these positions but, as one woman diplomat put it, it is just in the system.
In many respects women career diplomats in India seem to be doing better than their Pakistani counterparts. According to the Indian deputy high commissioner in Islamabad, the total strength of women officers at the Ministry of External Affairs is between 30 and 35 per cent.
Currently, the Indian External Affairs Ministry has two women additional secretaries holding important portfolios including disarmament. Also, India has had a woman foreign secretary and also a woman spokesperson. However, women officers at the MFA are gradually breaking new ground. One recent example is of Ms Seema Baloch, a career officer, who has become the first woman to be appointed director- general headquarters.
A decade ago it was unheard of that a woman officer would be appointed director at the foreign secretary’s office or director at foreign minister’s office. However, in the last three years two promising women career diplomats have served in this important post.
Ms Tehmina Janjua, who is now Pakistan’s Deputy Representative to UN Mission in Geneva, and Ms Tasnim Aslam, previously director Americas, has recently been appointed as Director Foreign Secretary Office. In 2002, Ms Fauzia Abbas, who is now Pakistan’s ambassador to Switzerland, served as director at the Foreign Minister’s Office.
Of the current 78 ambassadors, seven are women. Of these seven, only Dr Maleeha Lodhi is a political appointee. Another Foreign Service cadre officer Ms Fauzia Sana, Director-General Saarc, has recently been appointed ambassador to Portugal, bringing the total number of women ambassadors to eight.
While this is the highest number of women designated as ambassadors at any given time in the history of Pakistan Foreign Service, the diplomatic missions where they serve are not considered professionally the most challenging.
Career women diplomats have hardly ever been posted as ambassadors to key European or Western capitals. They have held number two positions in Pakistan missions abroad but never been appointed as head of the high-profile foreign missions in Beijing, Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, New Delhi, New York, Geneva or Vienna.
The two Pakistani women who made it to the high-profile ambassadorial slot in the world’s most powerful capital, Washington DC., were both political appointees. Syeda Abida Husain was the first woman political appointee, who was then followed by Dr Maleeha Lodhi who served for almost two terms.
Also, the prized European ambassadorial post in London is occupied by a political appointee, Dr Maleeha Lodhi. In contrast, women career diplomats are posted in relatively inconsequential world capitals which include Warsaw, Beirut, Berne, Ashghabat, Rabat and Sarajevo. The trend in the past has been similar.
Pakistani women’s role in diplomacy dates back to 1952 when Begum Liaquat Ali Khan became the first Pakistani woman to be appointed ambassador. She served as Representative of Pakistan to the 7th session of the UN General Assembly. Begum Zubaida Habib, Begum Z.H.I. Rahim, and Begum Ikramullah also served as representatives of Pakistan to the UN General Assembly in the fifties.
Late Begum Salma Jan was among the first career women diplomats to be appointed ambassador. However, today after more than half a century the number of women career officers has increased but their visibility in high- profile slots remains dim.
Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Mission in New York called upon the international community last week to fulfil the commitments made at the 1995 Beijing Conference so that gender equality and the empowerment of women goals are realized. Perhaps he should be making this call to his own headquarters for ensuring a level playing field for all.