Maleeha Lodhi, the first woman to be appointed permanent representative of Pakistan to the United Nations, has been breaking barriers since her initial appointment as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States in 1993.
Born in an upper-middle-class family in Lahore, Pakistan in 1953, Lodhi went abroad to study political science at the London School of Economics and earned her PhD in Political Science in 1980. Her mother was among one of the first Muslim journalists in Lahore following Pakistan’s independence. She says her parents instilled the value of education in all their children, disregarding the societal constraints put on women and girls.
When she returned to Pakistan after completing her education, Lodhi went on to become the founding editor of The News International. Three years later, she was approached by then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to serve as Pakistan’s envoy to the United States.
The following Q&A with Lodhi has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fatima Syed: After completing your education, you went on to take up various different roles. You initially represented Pakistan as its Ambassador to the U.S., and are now the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. Did you ever envision yourself in these positions?
Maleeha Lodhi: It was really the former, late-prime-minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who offered me my first position as an Ambassador in Washington. Of course I had no previous experience and hadn’t thought of that position for myself. I remember saying to her, “You know, I’ve never done this in my life,” to which she turned around and said, “I’m the Prime Minister. I’ve never done this in my life either.” She really encouraged me.
I then turned to my family, It was important for me to get their approval for entering a realm that I never previously considered and also a realm which would take me away from them. They were all very supportive and understood what a huge opportunity it was. It was very humbling for me also that among the top diplomatic posts of the country, the Prime Minister deemed me capable enough for the job. Of course I was very nervous when I first arrived in Washington. I looked around and I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this.”
FS: You mentioned your family. What message would you give to women who face challenges with work-life balance?
ML: It’s tough, it’s a challenge because you’re trying to juggle your family and your career which is never easy. Oftentimes, you are filled with guilt because you’re spending so much time at work. When I was starting off in my career and my son was very young, it was grandma who played mom for the periods that I was away at work. I think we learn by doing. I don’t think I can pull out a manual that tells us what the right way is. You don’t really know until you do it.
One thing I learned along the way was that to be a winner, you cannot be a whiner. You just have to put your best foot forward, and not complain. The moment you start complaining, you’ve pretty much lost. That means that you’ve been daunted by the challenge.
FS: Why do you think Pakistan is still so far behind when it comes to encouraging women to rise to leadership roles?
ML: The paradox is that we’ve had the first female elected Prime Minister in any Muslim country and we’ve had the first female speaker of Parliament in the Muslim world. There are so many role models of women making it in Pakistan.
On one hand you have these examples of extraordinary female success, but on the other hand, because of the education deficit and a lack of access to education, obviously women do not have what empowers them the most: education. That is what keeps us away from female empowerment. That is Pakistan’s challenge.
FS: As a woman in a male-dominated field, what are some struggles that you’ve experienced?
ML: Among several conversations I had with one of my closest friends, a former American diplomat who served in the State Department, we often said to each other that in both our cultures there is a presumption about female incompetence. We have to prove ourselves throughout our careers. It’s almost like we’re on permanent probation.
Whereas about a male professional, there is a presumption of competence until he makes a mistake. For female professionals, it has felt that at times, men are just watching and waiting for us to make a mistake so they can then say, “She’s a woman, what else could you expect?”
It’s attributed to gender and not to the fact that we all make mistakes. What I found interesting while I was having this conversation with my American friend is that she experienced exactly what I experienced in similar professions. She reached a very high position in the State Department and she told me that people still kept on asking, “Is she capable enough to do this?” whereas they would never direct this question to a man.
FS: What’s one piece of advice you have?
ML: I would encourage women to always believe in themselves. If you truly believe that you can do something, you will. You can always muster the support of people around you. The odds are the odds, they are there, but those odds shouldn’t be looked at as if they are formidable and you won’t be able to surmount them. You can. Just go out there and win. Women have achieved so much and we so fortunate to be living in an age where so much is possible for us to do. One must have self-belief and self-confidence.