Purses Over Policy? Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Makes Headlines

Hina Rabbani Khar was just appointed Pakistan’s first female foreign minister, but by reading the headlines you would be forgiven for thinking she had just become the country’s latest fashion export.

Khar went over to India this week, marking the first official state visit between the two countries since the 2008 terrorist bombings in Mumbai, after which India suspended communication with its neighbor and rival. Negotiations and peace dialogues between the two countries pretty much stalled until earlier this year.

Birkins and Business: Khar is Pakistan's First Female Foreign Minister. Image Credit: Views of Women

But the newspapers had no interest in conversations the newly appointed foreign minister had about unfreezing what is often described as “one of the world’s most tense bilateral relations,” instead opting to focus on Khar’s wardrobe:

In a rarity for the Indian media, not known for assessing the dress-sense of previous Pakistani visitors, the Mail Today tabloid devoted extensive space to her choice of outfit as she flew in to New Delhi airport on Tuesday. ‘Tasteful accessories — Roberto Cavalli sunglasses, oversized Hermes Birkin bag and classic pearl jewellery — added a hint of glamour to her look,’ it added.

The Mail Today continued:

The 34-year-old minister scored full marks on the fashion front when she was spotted at the Delhi airport in a monotone outfit of blue — the color of the season.

Khar Presents a Budget Speech in the Pakistani National Assembly. Image Credit: Maila Times

All this attention on Khar’s appearance and wardrobe while disturbing, should really come as no surprise in a continent where objectifying women is still an active part of our culture, from Bangladesh to India to Pakistan.

Ironically, these countries, along with Sri Lanka, also have long histories of women holding high positions of power-as long as they have an important male link. Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Indira Gandhi, and Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s current Prime Minister, all were daughters, wives, or widows of key male political figures.

That is not to say that these women did not work hard to get where they got. It is just worth noting how sexism is systematized in this part of the world where one important male connection can open doors which otherwise remain closed for half the population, ie women. It gives these women immediate respect and acceptability amongst the general public.

As the daughter of politician Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar, Hina is no different. She entered politics when she was elected to the National Assembly from the Pakistan Muslim League in 2002, served as the State Minister for Economic Affairs and Statistics in the cabinet of Yousaf Raza Gillani. In 2009 she became the first woman to present a budget speech in the National Assembly. The married mother of three was officially appointed foreign minister in July of this year.

While there may be a particular air of sexism in the Indian Subcontinent, let’s face it- female politicians and powerful women in general around the world always receive more attention for their accessories than their policy.

Look at Michele Obama. She attended both Harvard and Princeton, is a former lawyer, but all we care about are how toned her arms are. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, who was the former Creative Director of legendary British stationery firm, Smythson gets more attention for her dress than her brains.

Granted Obama and Cameron are both wives of Heads of State, is it really much different for Hilary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi, famous for donning $5,000 pearls? What powerful women wear and how they look is how we continue objectifying them despite them beating serious odds to have the career they do, even if they did get a little help by association from the men in their lives.

Why is it so important for women to look pretty? Why do we never talk about the color of Barack’s suit or tie? Because this is how people deal with their secret discomfort with seeing women in power.

By talking about their dress and shoes and necklaces, we discredit an authority the majority of people do not want to see women have. If Pakistan’s new foreign minister was a man on his first official state visit in three years, I do not think his outfit would have made headlines.

While Indian papers had a field day with fashion puns over Khar’s visit, one Pakistani blogger used the foreign minister’s wardrobe to raise a legitimate point in her post, “Does Your Foreign Minister Own a Birkin?”:

…As happy as I am that she is Pakistan’s first female Foreign Minister, I have to ask this question (snarky as it may seem): Could she not have done without the Hermes Birkin? Before you brush me aside as a hater, let me clarify that I am a big supporter of well-groomed women (what’s wrong with being hot?). But was it really necessary for a minister from a poor, corruption-stricken country to brandish a limited edition bag that boasts luxury and probably costs somewhere between $10,000-$15,000?

While this is a question I think deserves an answer, the truth of the matter is whether you’re a woman in the public eye in Dhaka or DC, Islamabad or Istanbul, how you look still matters more than what you say.

And the press appears to agree.

*This post of mine was first published on Forbes Woman.

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