KARACHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s newly appointed foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is young in a culture that reveres the old, female in a society that favours men and her appointment comes just days before Pakistan’s latest round of talks with arch-rival India.
Khar, 34, was appointed on Tuesday after serving as junior foreign minister for five months. Previously, she was the Minister of State for Economic Affairs and Statistics.
“This will not be an easy ride because of the complex issues being faced by Pakistan and the way the foreign policy is formulated within the country, where there are many influence groups which she will have to work with,” said Shaukat Tarin, who served as Pakistan’s finance minister when Khar was minister of state for finance and economic affairs said.
“This will really test her maturity.”
India and Pakistan are due to hold foreign minister level talks in Delhi in late July, and Khar is going to face new scrutiny despite holding the post unofficially over the last five months.
Talks were broken off in 2008 after India blamed Pakistan-based militants for attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people. Talks were restarted earlier this year.
Khar’s first high-profile test will be this week, when she meets U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Indonesia, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said.
She will also face domestic challenges.
“I think that she will be a figurehead,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on the Pakistani military and the author of “Military Inc.”
“It’s nothing to do with her per se, it’s about the government’s capacity to wrangle control of foreign policy from the military.”
Siddiqa said much of the foreign ministry’s bureaucracy — headed by Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, whose brother is the head of the navy — is geared to serve the military’s purposes.
Her predecessor, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, was considered close to the military, but her relationship with the army is unknown.
She started her political career with a party affiliated with former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, eventually rising to junior finance minister.
She has since switched to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose ties with the security services have been strained.
Attempts to contact Khar were unsuccessful.
Khar is one of a number of a rising women politicians in Pakistan: an irony in one of the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to women’s rights. The most famous is former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister in the Muslim world. She was assassinated in 2007.
While President Asif Ali Zardari said in a statement that her appointment is “a demonstration of the government’s commitment to bring women into the mainstream of national life”, he also said it would “send positive signals about the soft image of Pakistan.”
And even those praising her referenced her age and inexperience.
“Although international relations is complex these days, I am confident she will learn very quickly,” said Ashfaque Hasan Khan, former special secretary and now dean of NUST business school in Islamabad.
Tarin, the former finance minister, said her age shouldn’t be held against her, but added: “My impression is if properly guided and coached by the seniors in the party, she will become an effective foreign minister.”
Khar is from a political family in southern Punjab; her father is a large feudal land-holder from Muzaffargarh. She is Pakistan’s 26th and youngest foreign minister.
Reportedly a keen trekker and polo-enthusiast, Khar owns Lahore’s upscale Polo Lounge, an elite club where the city’s wealthy and influential rub shoulders.
She holds a masters in hospitality and tourism from the University of Massachusetts and worked in hotel management before turning to politics.
Additional reporting by Sahar Ahmed and Augustine Anthony; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Sugita Katyal