As soon as Hina Rabbani Khar touched down in New Delhi last week to meet SM Krishna, her Indian counterpart, #HRK and #Birkin – her initials and the name of her handbag – began trending worldwide on Twitter.
Across the border, reactions to Khar – who, at 34, is Pakistan’s youngest foreign minister – were surprising. The Indian media gushed (“First they sent bombs, now they send bombshells”), while Pakistan’s was less enamoured (“Does this expensively dressed minister represent a country which is under hefty debt?”). But Khar – Hermes purse, Roberto Cavalli sunglasses and all – very much represents Pakistan. And especially Pakistani political culture.
The rich-poor disconnect in Pakistan is increasing. A 2010 study estimated that 32% of Pakistan’s 180 million population subsists below the poverty line. According to the Human Development Index, 60.3% live on under $2 a day. Wealth distribution in Pakistan is highly uneven and the richest pay little in taxes; Khar only paid Rs8,000 (less than £60) in taxes last year. So her ability to accessorise while millions in her country are homeless jobless and malnourished is hardly surprising. It is indicative of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots in Pakistan today.
Khar’s early political career is symbolic of Pakistan’s version of democracy, where political parties are treated like family heirlooms and party leadership as an inheritance. Although Khar was elected twice to the national assembly – on a pro-Musharraf ticket in 2002 and on a pro-Benazir ticket in 2008 – she has never publicly campaigned to win an election. Her seat has been held by the Khar family for years and she owes her win largely to her politician father, Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar,who, not having graduated from college, could not run himself. Mr Khar propped her up instead, campaigning on her behalf and ensuring her win from rural, conservative Muzaffargarh, where their family owns land, fisheries, mango orchards, sugar cane fields, and reigns supreme.
Given the military and Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’s long history of involvement in Pakistan’s foreign policy, many wonder how Khar can make a difference, especially when her predecessor apparently lost his job for resisting diplomatic immunity for CIA operative Raymond Davis, who killed two Pakistanis in January. As part of a government that has had its hands tied by the army, and a nation that is often labelled “an army with a country, not a country with an army”, Khar and her prime minister are not the real decision-makers. And no foreign minister will be any time soon.
Yet she offers hope. Pakistan has countless women like Khar – perhaps not in terms of lifestyle, but in how they choose to live their lives, dedicated to public service. From Fatima Jinnah to Benazir Bhutto, from Sherry Rehman to Asma Jahangir, Pakistani women are no shrinking violets. During the draconian Zia years, it was women who led the protests. Women artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, authors and professionals have always rejected the corseted roles men have sought to cast them in.
Although the Hudood laws continue to cripple the status of women in Pakistan today, the Women’s Act, the criminal law amendment against “honour” killing, the protection against harassment of women at the workplace bill, and the acid control and acid crime prevention laws are powerful strides forward. Today, nearly 30% of doctors and 22% of parliamentarians – including the national assembly speaker – are women. In 2009 Khar became the first woman to present the federal budget in parliament. Pakistani women are dynamic and unafraid, and this fact is one of the saving graces of our benighted country.
Khar has been criticised for being too young and for having a degree in hospitality management. But we are a young country with a young population (the median age is 21), so it is fitting that we have a young representative. While her father has no degree, Khar has two (the other in economics).
What was achieved in Khar and Krishna’s first meeting represented a marked change in outlook for the relationship between the two nations. Both sides agreed to boost trade by doubling the number of days the Kashmiri line of control would be open for commerce. Pakistan will give India most favoured nation status and India will lower tariff duties. Travel restrictions will be eased.India issued a statement that could be read to mean it was satisfied with Pakistan’s progress in the 2008 Mumbai attacks case.
We still have a long way to go. It is unfair to expect Khar to magically set right a history plagued with distrust. Our relations with India and America are complicated, and will remain so. But by confidently reaching out to India, she represents Pakistan and its people’s aspirations better than any man – military or civilian – ever could.
By Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of the assassinated governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. She is a reporter at Newsweek Pakistan.