An exclusive impactmania interview with Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Maleeha Lodhi, the first woman to hold the position. Ambassador Lodhi was also the first woman in Asia to be appointed to the post of editor of a national daily newspaper.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Ambassador Lodhi, you are Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN. You’ve also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, twice, and as High Commissioner to Britain. What has been a surprising learning filling these esteemed roles?
This unique profession has been a journey of learning. I don’t think there’s a single issue that surprised me, but in a way, you’re surprised everyday by what you still need to learn. I came to diplomacy from journalism and academia; many of the skills that I learned were very useful for me in my third profession, because I have had three different hats.
Two things have been fundamental, first, the ability to assess a situation. Whether it is to write an article or to engage in diplomacy, it requires analysis assessment.
The second factor is a red thread running through all professions. Whether you’re teaching a university class, a journalist developing sources, or a diplomat responsible for winning over different hearts and minds to the rightness of your agenda, it requires people skills. The most fundamental aspect of which is the ability to listen to others. This skill set helps us forge the kind of relationships that are necessary to move forward.
You mentioned your career in journalism. You were the first woman in Asia to be appointed to the post of editor of a national daily newspaper. How do we effectively support more women in impactful roles?
First of all, through more widespread education, certainly in my country. Education is the most empowering vehicle through which women can play a more active role. Second is to have role models, women who have managed to break through the glass ceiling or any other obstacles.
Fundamentally, I think education is the most important; it is certainly the most empowering thing to achieve, because it gives people a sense of independence. It gives them a sense of self-worth, a sense of being able to achieve. Then seeing that others can do it, you can do it too.
You can’t be what you can’t see.
I have interviewed a number of Pakistani women and girls. A strong factor behind their success, besides education, is the support of their fathers. How can we encourage more men to be great supporters of their daughters, wives, and women’s rights in general?
Well, this is so true because, in my own case, I had a very supportive family, both father and mother. They treated me like my two siblings, my brothers. There was no differentiation between us in the kind of education and encouragement we received.
So I think that a father’s support is a very important factor. This is especially true in countries like Pakistan where family remains a significant unit. The values of the father and their influence on his children are great. There’s this famous Chinese saying, Women hold up half the sky, meaning women have to be equal partners to men.
In developing countries, where there is obviously an education deficit, there is also obviously a low level of literacy. I return to this issue again and again because education is so integral and so fundamental to creating this awareness and to changing the traditional thinking that has sometimes acted as an obstacle preventing women from taking on greater roles.
Could you give me a specific example of how you can affect better education or better spread of education?
Well, first of all, fundamentally it’s about making sure that every child, in every state has the equal right to an education. Pakistan still has millions of children out of school. That’s where it all begins! Boys grow up to be fathers and must be taught to have a different attitude…ensuring that all children from the youngest age have access to education. This is key.
Next, I would say the role of the media. Despite playing an increasingly huge role, it could be significantly greater in bringing about social change particularly in remote areas. Though it is the source of information for everyone these days, there are areas of Pakistan which have just television. For social media, greater access to the Internet is required and Pakistan’s coverage is not 100 percent.
There have been cases in which television programs have discussed social issues and brought about change. For example, we now have laws against honor killing and laws against child marriage. All of these views are extremely important! It’s one thing to sound like your international counterparts; it’s quite another to change your tradition even though doing so can bring about the emancipation of the men, which is so necessary for the progress of any country.
You are serving as Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN. What would you say is your mission in a role like this?
I think the most important eventuality is to ensure Pakistan’s concerns, that Pakistan’s interests are understood by people both in the government to which one is accredited, as well as to the people of that country. It’s quintessentially a mission of ensuring that what your country seeks in the international community, in the world, its interests, etc., are understood. And, therefore, you have to appeal to multiple audiences.
It’s not enough to walk into the office of another official. You have to be out there in the media. You have to speak on campuses. You have to be available to think-tanks so that you are affecting a wide range of people of that country, so that they understand your country.
This is the mission. The fundamental job of a diplomat is to win hearts and minds, and win hearts and minds for a purpose.
When you go out and speak, what’s one of the oft-heard misunderstandings about your country?
I think Pakistan’s role in combating terrorism. This is the country, which has given so much to uphold global peace in terms of being able to fight and win against so many terrorist groups. I mean, the decimation, for example, of Al Qaeda in our region is entirely due to Pakistan’s efforts, of course in cooperation with other countries, but fundamentally, it has been Pakistan. And yet, there are misperceptions about Pakistan not doing enough.
Here is a country, which has lost tens of thousands of lives, of military personnel, of law enforcement, of ordinary civilians in the fight against terrorism. This is such a hot button at the moment, and rightly so. Because, as an international community, we feel threatened by the men of violence, and we meet violence all over, in every part of the world, I think it’s important for people to understand Pakistan’s contribution, commitment, and sacrifices in battle.
The second area where I would like to clear misconceptions: somehow Pakistan is seen as a very underdeveloped and a very backward country. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We are a developing country. There are parts of our country, which need to be better developed, of course, to catch up with the rest of the country. But this is also a country, which has made extraordinary progress in terms of having the first female prime minister of any Muslim nation, the first female speaker of Parliament, and the first female governor of a central bank, and much before the United States.
Wow, I didn’t know that.
Yeah, there you go! We need to do a better job getting these facts out and making sure that people are interested and engaged with us so that we can tell them about our journey. We’re a young nation, but with an ancient civilization. That makes us a civilization of state, rather than just a nation-state. We come from a very old civilization, and we’re very proud of that. I think that’s hard for us to get across sometimes, because people tend to see us as a country, which is only 70 years old rather than a civilization with roots that go back three millennia.
Pakistan has been elected in the Human Rights Council. What will be the stand of Pakistan be for the human rights protection of minorities, especially for the Ahmadi community?
More generally, the fact that we have been elected to the Human Rights Council shows that the community has endorsed a strong commitment to upholding human rights, both nationally as well as internationally. We have signed up to several treaties and covenants on human rights.
And, I would say that on human rights, no country’s perfect. There is no country in the world that can say, “We have it all right.” It’s always a work in progress. And for us too in Pakistan, but our commitment to upholding human rights in our own country is very much there. There are several areas where, obviously, we need to do more work because of challenges. There are social attitudes that we need to be dealing with. Sometimes they come in the way of insuring full protection. But I do think that the fact that we are in now, in the Council, is a vote of confidence in our commitment.
What can people do to support peace in Pakistan? Or, at least, gain a better understanding of the country and its people?
I think that’s a very good question. I would say to people, “Visit my country to really see it for yourself and then make up your mind.” It’s one thing for a diplomat of a country to be communicating about it, it’s another thing for somebody to go out there. And if you are from an educational background, there are so many opportunities to go teach there and to really experience Pakistan. Just go there and see for yourself how safe it is, how secure it is, what we, as a nation, are all about, and how our aspirations are the same as the aspirations of the American people.
We aspire to the same things as you do. We are all part of a good family; we may be divided into nations. There is a quote from the holy Quran, which says, “O Mankind…We made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know one another..” It’s just so profound. Essentially what it says is that you are the same, but in your differences, we ask you to know each other and therefore be tolerant of each other.
We always ask our interviewees who has left an imprint on their professional DNA. If you would have to name one or two people, who would it be?
My father without a doubt; my father’s DNA is part of me in more ways than one. First of all, I saw a man who lived by right principles. Then, I saw him work his way up and reach the pinnacle of his professional career; he started as a junior officer and ended up running the company. He taught me that it wasn’t enough to just excel in your professional career, it was also important to be a good human being. I derived my inspiration from that and also from my mother, who’s amongst my country’s first female journalists even before Pakistan acquired independence. I was very inspired by her. She was a Muslim woman who started working at a newspaper in pre-partition days. So when you see this in your family, your heroes are your mother and your father.
Any sayings that stayed with you?
In life, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.
You certainly do a lot of negotiating.
Yeah, I’ve been willing to go out there and negotiate in the metaphorical sense, too, which is when you have to navigate and negotiate through life. You can’t just sit back and say good fortune will smile on me. It won’t go out and make it happen. [Laughs.]
Give me an example of what you’ve negotiated that kept you up at night.
Well, I think, juggling motherhood with my career. For a woman, that’s always a challenge. You often wonder whether you’re giving it your best, both in terms of being a good mother as well as being a good professional. So you’re negotiating. It can break your heart.
And you probably feel guilty every step of the way, no matter how you negotiate it.
That’s absolutely right…that is certainly right.
So what’s next for you Ambassador?
That’s a good question. I’m a grandmother. So I’d like to spend time with my grandson, and also find new ways of giving back to my country. Perhaps moving from diplomacy to working for a non-profit which is helping less privileged people acquire the skills they need to find jobs. I have something in mind, which I haven’t signed up to yet, but I’d like very much for that to be my next career.
Will it be in the U.S., or back in Pakistan, or globally?
It would be very much in Pakistan.
In closing, what do you hope your child has learned from you as his mother, but also from this woman who has been in world politics?
I think the fact that hard work pays off and that you have to professionally excel in what you do and take pride in what you do, otherwise you’ll never excel. If you regard what you do in terms of your career as just a nine to five paycheck, then, frankly, life is not worth it.
The true meaning of life is in finding ways in which you can contribute to the wider community. I hope my son and my grandson have learned that from me. We’ll soon find out. [Laughs.]