All eyes on her: Pak foreign minister makes debut
Hina Rabbani Khar, aged just 34 and the first woman to be appointed foreign minister of Pakistan, will be thrust into the spotlight when she holds talks with her Indian counterpart this week.world Updated: Jul 26, 2011 16:05 IST
Hina Rabbani Khar, aged just 34 and the first woman to be appointed foreign minister of Pakistan, will be thrust into the spotlight when she holds talks with her Indian counterpart this week.
Khar, who was only appointed last week after serving as a junior foreign minister since February, has become the face of Pakistani diplomacy at a critical time, despite questions over her youth and inexperience.
She will make a high-profile debut at Wednesday's talks between Pakistan and India -- one of the world's most fraught cross-border relationships which has led to war three times since 1947.
Few breakthroughs are expected during the meeting between Khar and Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna, who is 45 years her senior, as the two countries make their first contacts at that level in one year.
The nuclear-armed rivals came to the brink of conflict as recently as 2002 and frictions have remained high since 2008 when Pakistan-based militants were blamed for attacks on Mumbai in which 166 people were killed.
Khar, a headscarf-wearing mother of two daughters, is inevitably compared to Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic female prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated when trying to regain power in 2007.
She has already attracted widespread attention in the Islamic nation where women seldom feature in public life, and a newspaper picture of her wearing tight jeans caused a shimmer of disapproval.
Politics in Pakistan can be a dangerous trade, with one minister and a provincial governor killed already this year over their opposition to a blasphemy law.
Khar, much like Bhutto, comes from one of Pakistan's leading political and land-owning families. Her clan have extensive farms in Punjab, the richest and most populous province, where they attract loyal support from local communities.
Khar's father is veteran politician Ghulam Rabbani Khar and her uncle was a chief minister of Punjab, and she has inherited much of their political influence.
Educated in Lahore before completing her degree in business management in the United States at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Khar was elected to parliament in 2002 and first served under then President Pervez Musharraf.
She later changed allegiance to the Pakistan People's Party, which took power in 2008, and held a senior role in the economic ministry on her rapid rise to one of international diplomacy's most sensitive positions.
Some observers say her elevation is evidence that Pakistan is still run by select families, such as the Bhuttos -- President Zardari is Benazir's widower --and the opposition Sharif clan.
Khar's critics say she is a lightweight who will be little more than a voicepiece for others. "The people in power, including the military, are comfortable that she will follow whatever brief is given to her," foreign policy analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.
"She will not make waves and this is what the Prime Minister (Yousuf Raza Gilani) and the military want."
Askari said Khar was a contrast to her outspoken predecessor Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was seen as having ambitions to become prime minister until he was removed from his post in February. "The choice confirms the impression that foreign policy is made by the military and she will be a political front only," Askari said. But President Asif Ali Zardari said Khar's appointment broadcast "the soft image of Pakistan" to the world and demonstrated "the government's commitment to bring women into the mainstream of national life."
Khar's performance in Wednesday's talks will be watched closely by Western nations as Pakistan's foreign policy is seen as crucial to stability across South Asia, including in Afghanistan. "She's a woman, young and good-looking, and that may help the country's image," one foreign diplomat in Islamabad told AFP. "She's quite westernised, but that does not mean that she'll be pro-west.
"Foreign policy remains in the hands of the army, so she may be more effective on issues like economic relations with western countries."