Please tell us about your foray into the field of politics. How did it all begin for you? Had you always aspired to be a diplomat and serve in the Senate?
I never sought a political career. In fact, I was quite hesitant to join. It was the great Benazir Bhutto who insisted I try public service, and without her personal, tireless mentoring, I would never have stayed the course. I used to ask her whether political success and virtue were compatible, and she would assure me repeatedly that politics should be precisely about that: social justice and the need to do good. Being ambassador was something I totally did not want to do at this point in my life. But after Salala, when so many of our soldiers were martyred on the border with Afghanistan, the PM summoned me and said there is a crisis. The country needs you now, stop saying no. I didn’t want to leave Pakistan, nor forego active politics in the national assembly but when he said your flag; both of us knew I would not be able to refuse. The rest, as they say, is history.
What have been some of the most taxing challenges you’ve faced and have overcome throughout your years in politics? Do you think it’s harder for women to gain a strong footing in politics?
I have had very few ordinary days, and courage is part of the territory many of us have chosen. My life has not exactly been a bed of roses, but I have always let it seem like that. I was ambassador in Washington, yet accused for blasphemy offences in Supreme Court cases in Pakistan. Those were tough days, when some of the biggest names in the legal and human rights world would not stand up to be counted. I would be at work in the US by 5:30am usually, but for talking to lawyers and police personnel involved in a death penalty case, be up through the night for Pakistan time. I was with Benazir Bhutto in each of the bomb blasts that marked her return to Pakistan, and then her apocalyptic assassination. Politics has given me both a soapbox and an ability to seek change, be a cog in the highway of public opinion and much-needed reform. I just wish I’d be able to do more for women, for minorities, for the most vulnerable. It’s 2017, why are we even talking about women in politics as opposed to just politicians? Because women still carry a nimbus of the anomalous, the scent of a species diverted from their original track, which is of course the “mommy track”,? Or because women presidents are still the exception, not the norm in a row of black suits at global summits? A woman’s experience of power shapes her experience in the world. Wherever you frontline, women face more barriers than men. Women go through far more life cycles than men, and they must remember that all of these are small and big opportunities to reinvent ourselves. We don’t have to burn ourselves out being superwomen, but we must seize the space needed to exercise options. There is no force that can withstand an empowered woman and no one else will empower you. You have to take your power fraction by fraction, all by little acts of free choice, even if they are in the domestic sphere. Shaheed Benazir Bhutto dispelled the myths of what women in political roles should be. She cut through conventional confines and barriers by just the sheer power of belief in her convictions. I was blessed because Benazir Bhutto defined my daily experience in politics. For her, and many of us, politics was about hope. Believing in it and transmitting. She believed that “vision, reason and courage” are the true qualities of leadership. Benazir Bhutto taught many of us ways to move forward against obstacles, and build resilience: “Yes, you can,” was her favourite empowerment motto, which we had printed on our coffee mugs to nudge our memories. It may sound commonplace to some, but it’s actually a profoundly empowering notion.
Please tell us about those two years you served as ambassador to the US. How healthy were our relations with the US then and in what ways have they changed now?
The bilateral relationship was facing its worst low when I was yanked out of parliament and sent in to deal with the crisis. It was a huge diplomatic as well as personal challenge, because it entailed stepping straight into the eye of a strategic storm between the two countries, in the shadow of the OBL and Raymond Davis episodes, and right after the Memogate and Salala crises. My first job was to steady the potential decline, and to get both sides to start understanding what the other needed. The hardest part was the first six months, when I had to shuttle back and forth between Washington and Islamabad to explain how we could best unlock the latest and toughest knot. In Islamabad this was the first time that any major foreign policy decision, not rhetoric, actually went to parliament, which is crucial for actions rooted in public consent. Washington was not used to waiting for Pakistan’s democracy to speak, and it took months of working days that blurred into nights in the winter months to explain why Islamabad was taking its time for the resumption of opening our highways to the NATO pullout from Afghanistan, and to advocate empathy to key Congressional leaders. And that the need for an apology for Salala was not my own hobby horse, but was required by the system, across the policy board, including parliament, to open the doors to the resumption of full ties. Representing Pakistan’s interests, and explaining its multi-dimensional texture, was my only agenda, and I am grateful I had good American interlocutors in the State Department, White House and Pentagon, who did appreciate how we felt after months of constant meetings, but conveying that across the board, especially to Congress was a real daily challenge, even for them. My task was really to bring some stability to the broken Pak-US relationship, which had arguably spun into its worst phase ever since 2011. Other than re-establishing a bilateral working relationship based on mutual respect and trust, my aim was distilled around identifying strategic opportunities arising out of upcoming challenges, and to build a better understanding of the limits of each other’s capacities. The client-patron relationship didn’t work then, and it’s not working now. Pakistan needs to strengthen its own goals, resources and internal coordination in order to work the sovereignty needs better.
'Pakistan has gone through a long, turbulent time where politics is typecast as a dirty word, which it is the world over unfortunately. Yet politics is the only way to bring meaningful change'
What have you learned the hard way in this profession and what advice would you give to a novice in the field of politics?
Politics is the ultimate vehicle for change, yet it takes a lot of time, and even many failures. Certainly the paths to progressive politics in this environment are often littered with pain and tumult. Politics is a 24/7 career, with little free time, or Sundays off. One cannot afford for ‘overwhelm’ to become a noun. Time is the new currency, so it’s best to say what is on one’s mind. Life is too short, and so are high-level meetings. Young people should look for mentors and guides in political life, but more importantly, they should not avoid mainstream politics. Pakistan has gone through a long, turbulent time where politics is typecast as a dirty word, which it is the world over unfortunately. Yet politics is the only way to bring meaningful change, or hold the line on bad policies. It entails heartbreaking reversals, and is not for the faint-hearted, but the good news is that it still is the only vehicle for finding that light at the end of the tunnel, which is crucial for a society to reinvent itself and build resilience.
What according to you has been your biggest achievement so far?
I am not prone to rating my own achievements. That is for others to do. I do believe that it’s important to not sit on your laurels, but until retirement, keep moving and evolving. Whatever I have done, either in my first career in the media, or in mainstream politics, and as a diplomat; I don’t bargain on core fundamentals. That has always kept me centered. You have to know when to draw a red line. Whatever action I take as an agent of change has to affect my community, my country first, for it to have any meaning. It’s always been important to me to keep women with fewer opportunities in mind, and that’s more than 50 percent of the country, so most of my legislation and positions have been in that direction. I’m always concerned about how good laws languish on our books, and remain in danger of fading away as powerful tools for social protection and empowerment, so implementation is critical, but so is legal and social literacy on what constitutes rights. People often think laws will be transformative, and they should be, but they will only become meaningful if they impact lives. To impact lives, citizens have to reach out for the laws as a tool to empower them to hold the state accountable and to enforce the laws they are entitled to. No power is ever handed over on a silver platter. It is a long, hard and sometimes ferocious battle. But if you believe in something, then staying in a comfort zone is not going to move that line forward. Comfort zones are useful for regeneration of the spirit, but they are not a place where growth or social transformations take place. The other thing is that we should remember, change for the better does not dawn like a new sun, overnight. It takes years of bargaining and negotiation to trade in the good, and to keep moral choices in mind, but it is not the luxury of naming absolutes, which journalists have. The ideal is always a goal, a dream to keep in mind though. Without that ideal, our ideas lose their power and momentum.
What do you do in your spare time?
My life is like a battered high-speed train, all the time. Sometimes I feel a little breathless at this state of postmodern being, especially when my schedule sometimes takes me to three cities in one day. And as I grow older, because I travel constantly, I seek much-coveted leisure time with myself and with my family. One only gets so many hours to read, talk, watch movies, so I like to spend time doing that, although I do enjoy time-out with old friends, just being myself. In the age of the internet, and constant connectivity, while it’s important to stay connected with family and friends, it is equally crucial to take deep breaths and look for a little meaning in life, which ultimately can only come from human connection. Reading is my other enduring joy, from childhood. Sometimes when I am off-target on daily checklists, I almost feel it’s like a guilty pleasure late at night, but without reading I feel my mind does not regenerate emotionally and intellectually. The world is a glorious energy-bowl of ideas and redemptive beauty, and although words have limitations, the joys of prose and poetry are limitless. Art too is important to my life, not as a luxury, but as another vehicle for human expression that transcends language, and possibly connects dots in our interior world without even defining their path. Art sparks neurons in the mind that elevate the spirit or disturb it, but both the darkness and light of modern and classical art have an illuminative radius where language and logic leave off. I remember buying a painting with my first salary, although I should have allocated much of it for other staples, as I wanted to be independent, but to me I suppose it meant that art is a priority for my inner self, which just never stops sending signals and guiding me.
What has been the driving force behind all that you have achieved today?
The search for authenticity, for identity, for a voice, for meaning! I remember back in college, how I used to hanker to return home, because I only ever felt authentic in Pakistan, so eager to contribute to resisting the martial law of Ziaul Haq and the freedoms it took away from us. Since then, so much of my life directly and indirectly has been spent in that struggle: women’s rights, minority rights, the encroachment of extremism on social spaces, media freedoms, the political and intellectual fight for Jinnah’s Pakistan. Maybe it’s a drop in the ocean, but I know I will spend the rest of my life doing that. No long teas and naps in the afternoon just yet. It has also been important to have a voice, even though I have watched it change and grow. Whether I wrote as a journalist or spoke as a politician, my identity and opinions became wedded to what I said. So words have to have meaning, and messages can power so much change. Speaking out has been an age-old human way of resisting oppression, defining boundaries and negotiating a complex self-defined identity. This means I have to decide who I am, what I will wear, what I will say, what my last name is, and what my words mean. It may be a daily negotiation in the home and on the soap box, but my identity cannot be fixed or determined by birth, circumstance or anyone else. The one thing that does keep me awake at night sometimes is how best to help bring reform in Pakistan. What kind of country are we leaving behind for our children? Certainly not better than the one we grew up in. I keep thinking the clock is ticking, and I have not done enough, or played my part in bending history.
Who has been the most helpful, supportive and encouraging throughout your years in politics and who do you admire the most in this field?
Obviously, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. She left her indelible mark in both politics and in my life. I have lots more to say about how she re-wrote her own story and Pakistan’s, but she did so while so bothering to stop and look at women like me, to say, hey, I want you to join me. We will be a river for change, we will write new stories for Pakistan, she said, with her signature optimism. My profoundest grief still resonates with the stillness of my heartbeat when I heard she was gone. Once the shock was over, numb from the trauma of the episode, I remember thinking I can’t go back to political life. Over and over again in my mind, the same trope, but then her husband said to me as I wheeled my bag out of their home in Naudero, we need her close allies in politics to stay. We need her core group to help carry her vision forward, her manifesto and her dreams. I just looked at her grief-stricken family, nodded numbly, and said I would be back tomorrow with my laptop and stuff from Karachi. It’s been a long road since then, but I have never forgotten that day. I keep asking myself what I have done for her dream. It is never enough, but I know many of us will die trying.
What is your vision for Pakistan and what does it mean to be Pakistani for you?
My identity is inextricably bound up with my experience as a Pakistani citizen. All three of my careers have one thing in common: they are all in the service of my country. Pakistan is what defines me, in triumph and in dysfunction. It’s an inalienable part of my identity. I dream of an educated, tolerant Pakistan littered with ideas, innovation, reform, all driven by its new hope, the young people of Pakistan, including its vibrant, wonderful women. My generation of 50-somethings have a responsibility to lead, and that means mentoring as well as sharing of time. Since time is now the only real currency and can be resourced by all, how we use it matters most. Living by example is one way forward of course, but that’s still a low bar for me. It’s crucial to define paths to women taking their power, whatever work they do.
We, at Daily Times, consider you one of our national heroes. Who are some of yours?
I have never met a woman like Benazir Bhutto, who went straight to her death facing the sun, standing up for her followers and her moral universe. As a PM and leader, she actually stood by the women of Pakistan in more ways than I can re-count here. Suffice it to say she was the force that moved a million women to empower themselves, and to imagine a different future for themselves. Her spirit and profile in ultimate courage lives on.
Little do people know that politician Sherry Rehman has served as a journalist in the past, who has co-authored a book as well. Sherry Rehman started her professional career with The Daily Star and then joined The Herald and became its editor-in-chief at the age of 26. After leaving Herald in 1998, she co-authored the book The Kashmiri Shawl – From Jamawar to Paisley. She has worked as a professional journalist for 20 years and served as a member of the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors. She has also hosted a television current affairs show.
AN ACTIVE PHILANTHROPIST
The legendary Rehman is not just politician and an icon figure in the field of politics and journalism but has also taken up philanthropy actively in the past. She has worked for the Pakistan Red Crescent Society as chairperson.
Rehman has won many laurels and awards for her illustrious political career. She is a revered figure not just in Pakistan but internationally as well. In 2002, she became the first Pakistani to be recognised with an award for independent journalism by the UK House of Lords in its Muslim World Awards Ceremony. In 2009, a report of the International Republican Institute referred to her as “Democracy’s Hero” as a result of her struggle for the cause of democracy in Pakistan. In the same month, Rehman was named among the “100 Most Influential Asians” by UAE magazine Ahlan. In 2012, she received the Smith College Medal for her ‘extraordinary achievements and outstanding service’ to Pakistan. In 2006, she received the RL Shep Ethnic Textiles Book Award for The Kashmiri Shawl. In 2008, she was presented the International Peace Award for Democrats by the Human Rights Commission. She also won the International Human Rights Commission Award for her work for human rights and peace. In 2009, she received ‘The Freedom Award’ Pakistan by the Association of Television Journalists and in 2011; she received the Jeane J Kirkpatrick Award by The Women’s Democracy Network, Washington.
Published in Daily Times, August 13th 2017.