Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs Hina Rabbani Khar traveled to Kabul without adhering to the Taliban’s dress code for women by dressing typically stylishly and covering only the back of her head with her dupatta leaving much of her hair visible
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) can be faulted on multiple counts. For one, its leadership continues to be the preserve of the Bhutto family. It has faced serious corruption charges and has done little to end the feudalist status quo in its stronghold of Sindh, the country’s second most populous province.
But PPP’s commitment against the odds to inclusive, liberal values and women’s rights remain its redeeming factors. In 2014, American President Barack Obama famously hit the nail on the head when he noted: ‘You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls.’
Pakistan has a long way to go on that score but PPP has significantly contributed to it. That women have occupied top positions in Pakistan has much to do with the PPP. The PPP gave the country its first woman Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (1988), the first speaker of Parliament Fehmida Mirza, (2008), and the first foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar (2011). Pakistan’s first batch of six women fighter pilots was trained when PPP was in power from 2008-2013 before their induction shortly after the party was voted out of the government.
PPP nominated Krishna Kumari Kohli, a lower caste Hindu woman, to Pakistan’s upper house of Parliament in March 2018 from a general seat. Kohli became the second Pakistani Hindu woman senator after Ratna Bhagwandas Chawla (March 2006 to March 2012), who also won on a PPP ticket. Kohli’s nomination enhanced PPP’s image as a progressive party, which counts the Hindus among its committed voters.
Sherry Rehman, who is among the more recognisable Pakistani women leaders and the climate change minister, also belongs to the PPP. She was in the news for the role she played in setting the agenda at United Nations climate talks in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh (COP27) in November 2022. The Economist noted Pakistan is not often praised for its leadership and yet Rehman was ‘one of the star turns’ at COP27 as she helmed the G77+China negotiating group of developing countries.
Rehman won ‘plaudits for shepherding a new deal to channel money from rich countries to poor ones that have suffered climate-related disasters.’ The Economist called this the ‘annual climate jamboree’s single main achievement.’ It noted Rehman, a former ambassador to the US who became the first woman Opposition leader in Pakistan’s Senate in 2018, is also known for her fights against killings in the name of honour and draconian blasphemy laws.
Three of the five women ministers, including Rehman and Hina Rabbani Khar, in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government are from the PPP. Khar made a mark during her previous stint in the government. But she was relegated to PPP’s princeling Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s deputy in foreign affairs when the party returned to power as part of a multi-party coalition following Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ouster.
Hina Rabbani Khar’s current stint is set to be much shorter as elections are due in less than a year. But she quickly covered herself in glory through her symbolic and momentous trip to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Khar made the trip without conforming to the Taliban’s dress code for women. She was dressed typically stylishly covering only the back of her head with her transparent dupatta as much of her hair was visible.
Hina Rabbani Khar’s visit as the head of a delegation to Kabul with mostly male subordinates followed the Taliban’s ban on women and girls from visiting parks and gyms even if male chaperones accompanied them. She became the first Pakistani minister to travel to Kabul since the more centrist Shehbaz Sharif-led government took over in April. She made a statement through her trip as the Taliban continued to erase women from public life.
Hina Rabbani Khar sat across the table to hold talks with the Taliban’s interim foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi-led all-male Afghan interlocutors. The optics were significant as the Taliban have failed to live up to their pledges and continued to chip away at the rights and freedoms of women and girls, who have been the worst sufferers in Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation plunged the country into turmoil over 40 years ago.