High Society to High Commission
Issue 4 Mar / Apr 2004
Dr Maleeha Lodhi is a woman whose life has permeated the challenging arenas of politics, motherhood and journalism. The self determined High Commissioner of Pakistan tells Yasmine Choudhury of the experiences that continue to shape her dynamic life.
While waiting to interview Dr Lodhi, her Minister of Press, Javed Akhtar entertained me with his philosophy on the intricacy of marriage and the wisdom of age. A very interesting man indeed. He then escorted me to the main reception area where meetings and dinners take place. The Victorian style décor on the ceiling and side panel is magnificent, glazed with a beautiful coat of gold paint and complimented with vintage Victorian style furniture. The exquisite windows open out onto balconies from which you can watch the wealthy world of Knightsbridge go by. It was not long before Her Excellency Dr Maleeha Lodhi entered the room. Smiling, she extended her hand for a firm handshake and asked me to follow her into her office. And what a sight it was! Similar in grandeur to the reception hall, it too was truly opulent; in one corner stood her oak desk, majestically providing the central focus. The beautiful hand-made silk upholstery had been imported from Pakistan; this was a lovingly preserved picture-postcard from the Indian sub-continent.
But this was not Pakistan and we were not languishing at the palatial estate of a lady of leisure. Dr Lodhi is representative of a country that has been catapulted into the global arena largely due to its strategic location and she has frequently found herself in the diplomatic firing line. On issues of nuclear proliferation, the war on terror and women’s rights, she has fielded questions and accusations within the tumultuous terrain of global politics. She has been asked to justify Pakistan’s decision to spend significant sums of money in the pursuit of nuclear proliferation, money that many feel would be better directed to the health, education or development budgets. Her intellectually rigorous eloquence enables her to manoevre beyond the prickliest issue. She fervently objected to the sanctions imposed by the US after Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998, citing the Pakistani government’s actions as a necessary response to India’s inflammatory brinkmanship.
Dr Lodhi’s credits her fearless character to her upbringing. “My heroes are my mother and father.” She considers herself fortunate to have had a positive female role model from a young age. “I saw my mother as the modern Muslim woman. She trained to be a journalist, but marriage and the upheaval of the partition of India and Pakistan both intervened. She was unable to go to America where she had been offered a scholarship after graduating - a notable achievement for anyone at the time of pre-partition India.” Coming from an upper middle class family, Dr Lodhi was encouraged as far as possible to excel in education, and also to appreciate the opportunities she had been given in life. In some strange way, she feels she fulfilled her mother’s destiny by becoming a high profile journalist.
It was while attending a girls’ presentation convent school in Rawalpindi that Dr Lodhi feels she learnt the importance of interfaith harmony and appreciated the values common to the three great faiths of the Book. “I am grateful that I enjoyed an upbringing which combined the best of the East and the best of the West.” The importance of faith was para- mount throughout her upbringing. Her family was deeply religious and maintained a modern outlook to life.
“I have two siblings and as children we were conscious that we were privileged because we had access to the best education.” Dr Lodhi’s parents constantly reminded their children that as there was no land to inherit, the only way to ensure success and future security was to make the most of their education and employ the skills they would eventually acquire to earn a living for themselves. They were also encouraged to instill in their personalities “the highest values, while tirelessly seeking out knowledge.”
Growing up in an intensely nationalistic
family greatly impressed upon Dr Lodhi a sense of Pakistani nationhood. Muslim nationalism was strong in her parents’ generation and they were keen that their children should inherit these sentiments. Precisely because she and her siblings were not children of the partition, belonging instead to the post-independence generation, her parents wanted them to know what they had gone through.
“We were not told what to do, but inspired.”
I asked Dr Lodhi whether or not she would have walked down the journalistic path if her mother had not been trained in that field. She replied saying she does not know. Life could have been different!
The High Commissioner has long been driven by a motivation to make a difference. “If you want to change anything at any level then it has to be through a policy of engagement – intense engagement. You cannot fight battles in your own separate shops as it were. You must venture into the mainstream, whether it is at the national level or local level. Only then can you transform people’s attitudes.” Dr Lodhi firmly believes that without strong belief and commitment, whether in the field of education, politics, family life or career, you cannot make an impact unless you act with dedication and sincerity. This is the approach she takes and her catalogue of successes and achievements are testament to this.
Dr Lodhi’s school friends originate from similar background to herself, but their futures have tended to diverge. “Some went on to become the most successful homemakers.” She feels passionately that the role of the housewife should be acknowledged and valued. “Women who are homemakers are usually put to the side. They make such a valuable contribution to the stability of society, to the nurturing of the next generation and all of this should be respected.”
Being a diplomat and a mother, Dr Lodhi has managed to juggle the dual role of homemaker and career woman effectively, albeit, “with great difficulty! It has not been easy, as I am a single parent. It has been tough.” She talks about how Islam has given women choices, citing her own personal experience – she was married to a banker in London but they divorced after five years. “The decision to divorce is always an agonising one. However, once the choice has been exercised there is no going back.” When her only child, Faisal, who is now twenty-five and living in America, was seven she decided they should both return to Pakistan. “He had and still does have a good relationship with his father,” as does Dr Lodhi herself. “Faisal has grown up as much in a family as he could. It is tough, not just for Muslim women, but all women.”
Dr Lodhi was fortunate in that whilst the decision to divorce her husband was entirely her own, she received unconditional support and understanding from her family – not always the experience of women from the Indian sub-continent who are in a similar position. Without this family support network it would have been additionally formidable for her to adjust to her new life as a working single parent. “This inbuilt support system must be preserved because we live in a constantly changing environment. It is vital to accommodate ourselves to the change while being loyal to our values.”
She makes clear her view that responsibility occurs on many levels. “If you are a good mother, a good homemaker, you are also a good citizen, and being a good member of society extends from this. But if you are self-centered and if you are not giving to your family, the likelihood is you are not giving to wider society.” Family values are central to her aims as is the intertwined development of social cohesion.
Dr Lodhi has been forecast as the only person of Pakistani origin to have a formative role in shaping the 21st century. However, she is astute enough to see the platform for what it is. “In a way choosing me was choosing a Muslim woman from the second largest Muslim country in the world and a country which is the pivot around which many important developments in the world are happening. In a way I was chosen not because of who I was, but what I was in terms of where I came from and what I represent.”
Unafraid to push boundaries, Dr Lodhi was the first woman to be appointed editor of a national newspaper in Pakistan. Naturally the post carried weighty responsibilities, and to reach such a level as a woman in Pakistan brought with it inevitable hurdles. “In every culture and every society there are glass ceilings. There are Rubicons to cross and challenges inevitably exist, but once you have overcome them, what ultimately counts is merit.”
Dr Lodhi is frequently asked what it takes as a woman to be a good journalist, a good diplomat and a good teacher – the three vocations she has undertaken with great accomplishment in her life. “It takes the same as a man, the skills and attributes required are the same.
There are no qualities that a woman exclusively requires to be a good teacher, journalist or diplomat. When this question is posed, I say you need to rephrase your question. You do not need to be asking how to make it as a woman, but how to make it in a particular environment as a person.” This is not to deny there are special circumstances women have to deal with or must overcome but “if they are determined to be professional and are capable and not distracted by things which are said ‘because you are a woman…’ they will go far.”
How can this become the experience of all Pakistani women? Dr Lodhi has a simple yet obvious answer. “Education would ensure this. That is the key. It is one thing to have the opportunity to obtain an education, but what you do with it is something else. You have two types of people. One person has had the chance of gaining knowledge and educating herself then does nothing with it. The second person also has had the opportunity to gain knowledge and educate herself, however she does something with it, tries to make a difference in her community.” Dr Lodhi is clearly the latter. Not everyone in Pakistan has the opportunity to learn but “it is our goal, not our dream, because a dream means that you are dreaming forever and it will never materialise.” The basic aim is to provide a service whereby the non-privileged communities in Pakistan can access education.
Dr Lodhi is keen to address the image Pakistan has as a traditional society where women are not allowed to express themselves. “Like every society in this world, incidents do occur, however it is not the case for the majority. Some of the best barristers in Pakistan are women, some of the best architects, teachers, doctors, surgeons, designers, and parliamentarians are women. What connects all these women is that they went beyond themselves to contribute to society.”
Everyone claims to want to give something back to the community. Dr Lodhi puts her words into action. “As a newspaper editor what I sought to do was to influence government policy on the one hand, and on the other hand raise awareness of crucial issues, at least among the people who read our newspaper. Everyone faces personal challenges, what those who find themselves on a platform need to ask is how they can make a difference?”
The various platforms Dr Lodhi has come to occupy, whether through teaching, journalism or diplomacy are not exactly the result of a meticulously orchestrated career plan. Most people know from an early age what they want to do in life; but she did not. “I don’t want to give the impression that I had a clear sense of where I was going because I didn’t. Teenage years are where you begin to develop yourself and although I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do I found that much of my career was helped along by luck, chance and accident.”
Twenty-two years of journalistic experience, a distinguished academic career and a high profile diplomatic post. Does her catalogue of achievements leave any room for regrets? “No regrets,” Dr Lodhi considers, “except that I would have liked to spend more time with my parents than I was able to when my career really took off. When they are around you take it for granted. You meet them twice a week and think that’s enough. Now they are not around you miss them.”
Dr Lodhi’s incredible drive is supported by her belief in destiny, a divine plan. “You have to make the best out of a situation, sometimes it is adverse, other times it is positive. When it is positive you need to have your feet firmly on the ground and not let it go to your head. On the other hand you see adversity as a phase.” She finds solace in her faith, asking God for guidance and thanking Him for His blessings. “If you believe you will come out of it, then you will. If you don’t then you won’t. You need belief in your own abilities to transcend and transform when required.”
Dr Lodhi’s belief in her own abilities is exemplified by her postings. She carried out two terms as the Ambassador of Pakistan to the USA between 1994 and 1997, then between 1999 and 2001, before being appointed as the High Commissioner of Pakistan to the UK. In between that time she taught at the National Defense College in Lahore. Her post here in London has brought her back to familiar territory. She completed her undergraduate studies here as well as studying for a PhD in 1980. Though diplomatic life in London is new to her, she is without a doubt relishing the experience. Everyone has a place they call home and I wondered where that was for her. “Islamabad,” she replied without hesitation.
She came to London as a High Commissioner with a vision to change the erroneous preconceptions of people who know little about Muslims, in particular those from Pakistan. “To eliminate myths, for example about women in Islam, is one such responsibility.” The opinion-forming stories in the media relating to Pakistan are crucial to defining the image the rest of the world has of Pakistan. Dr Lodhi wants to reflect the positive features of Pakistan and hopes to encourage Britons to experience Pakistan for themselves. Realising her goals requires co-operation. “We cannot do this on our own, unless the community partners us in our common objective. This is something we have to do collectively.”
So what image does Dr Lodhi wish to cultivate? She responds by acknowledging the challenges, implicitly referring to Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan. “Pakistan is a country which has been afflicted by many problems. It has been saddled with such complications on various accounts, including its location. We do not choose where we are and we do not choose our neighbours. Pakistan also has had to deal with problems which are of its own making, but eventually there comes a time when the nation stands up and says it is time to fix the problems.” Dr Lodhi makes no apology for the military coup of 1999. “Our point was made four years ago when President Musharraf took charge.”
Dr Lodhi is keen to emphasise that the majority of citizens in Pakistan are ‘moderate’. She explains her definition of the term moderate as “people who respect the point of view of others and whose behaviour and conduct are guided by tolerance, not by a sense of ‘we know it all’.” I ask her to comment on the French edict on the hijab. She selects her words carefully. “France is a sovereign country so is entitled to develop its own domestic policy. All I would say is that something that creates disharmony is never a good idea.”
It is at this point that Dr Lodhi asserts her diplomatic stance and unequivocally addresses the criticism frequently directed at Pakistan - that the rise of the Taliban had been engineered in part by Pakistan. She disagrees wholeheartedly and once again reinforces the view that Pakistan is making the best of the strategic role that has been forced upon it. The actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan created a situation that Pakistan had no choice other than to deal with.
Dr Lodhi was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US when the world-changing events of September 11th 2001 horrified and stunned the world. The news touched her life personally - her son Faisal was an employee at the JP Morgan investment house in New York. Her immediate concern was for his safety and she spent the next few hours frantically trying to track him down while at the same time contemplating the consequences of those attacks for Pakistan. She faced a plethora of questions, allegations and accusations, perpetuated in a climate of fear and shock. However, Dr Lodhi points out, the American media did provide her with a platform to articulate Pakistan’s position and she was even invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show. She seized every opportunity to “create awareness about Islam amongst the American public.”
Dr Lodhi feels it is important not to allow others to define who you are and what you stand for. “Define yourself and keep on doing what you are doing. At times you will succeed, at times you will not. At the end of the day what will count is what your skill is, whether you are competent or not. That is what people will remember or will not remember. There is no magic wand here.”