Sherry Rehman chats with Hello! Magazine about her career, life & marriage
Sherry Rehman has had a long and prestigious career. She is a journalist – she was editor in chief of the Herald weekly news magazine; a diplomat – she was ambassador to the US at a critical juncture for Pakistan, starting 2011; politician – she is an MNA, cajoled by Benazir Bhutto into the field and now a mentor to the Bhutto ‘kids’; and writer – her book, The Kashmiri Shawl: From Jamawar to Paisley, co- authored with Naheed Jafri, was published in 2006. She now heads the Jinnah Institute, a think-tank, and writes for various publications.
She is also a wife and mother and runs an efficient and beautiful home, and is a sartorial wunderkind, always immaculately turned out. Here we bring you a candid interview with this multifaceted, driven, extraordinary woman, whose most important role, in her own words, is service to her country.
Your career has been spectacular to say the least. Personally and professionally, which has been your favourite period, and can you pinpoint a definitive point in your life when you decided what you were going to do, or did opportunities present themselves?
All the careers you mention have one thing in common: they are all in the service of my country. Pakistan is what defines me, in triumph and in dysfunction. It’s an inalienable part of my identity, so careers in public service came naturally.
Yet journalism was my first love, and remains the strongest part of me even today.
I wanted to be one since childhood. Used to read obsessively. Writing, having opinions, speaking my mind, taking risks, speaking truth to power are all marks of a journalist, and I just took to the job without looking back once.
Hameed Haroon culled me from a group of A-level students after reading our exam essays, and my long relationship with the media began just like that. On the basis of what I wrote, not whom I knew, or which strings were pulled. In those days I often worked a 16-hour day, and now that I look back at my stint as a diplomat, I clocked in the same.
I never sought a political career. In fact, I was quite hesitant to join. It was the great Benazir Bhutto who insisted I try public service, and without her personal, tireless mentoring, I would never have stayed the course. I used to ask her whether political success and virtue were compatible, and she would assure me repeatedly that politics should be precisely about that: social justice and the need to do good.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Being ambassador was something I totally did not want to do at this point in my life. But the PM said: there is a crisis. The country needs you now, and stop saying no. I didn’t want to leave Pakistan, nor forego active politics in the national assembly two years after the term finished. Service of Pakistan rules say you can’t hold that job and contest any sort of election for two years.
These days, I must say I enjoy the life of a public intellectual, writing, think-tanking, lecturing.
Your statement look is chic minimalism with classic accessories – what inspires your sartorial choices?
I never slavishly follow fashion, or get involved in the battle of the hemlines or embellishment. Of course I don’t like a dated look unless its self-consciously vintage, but I stay with my own sense of personal style.
I love a solid colour palette, with a touch of it in a scarf or shawl, or heritage jewellery. My official gear is almost always structured, with clean lines, textures and cuts defining the outfit. For outdoor public meetings, jalsas, its kurtas cut in the old-fashioned way.
My clothes have to follow my life, its pace, and its various commitments through a day, not the other way round.
How do you maintain your svelte self – any tips for women out there?
It’s the work hours I maintain. If I don’t clock in a minimum amount of hours in juggling demands on my time, I feel very guilty.
I drink a huge amount of water because my life is full of travel and pressure. I also have a strong coffee fetish, black and roasted. Luckily, I don’t have a sweet tooth at all. Only like chocolate, that too with coffee.
I see many friends doing yoga, working out with trainers, but I don’t have time for that. I love to swim, but that also requires a blowdry later!
So while exercise is hard to fit into my constantly changing schedule, I try to walk for 15 minutes maybe three times a week, but even during that time I feel I should be on a laptop answering mails. The body is just not a temple for me, although I know it should be at this age!
What is your definition of an empowered woman, especially one from this part of the world?
A woman cannot be truly empowered until she knows her rights, has control over her income and makes her own choices.
This is a tall order for most women, especially those at the bottom of the economic pyramid in Pakistan, and the rest of South Asia.
Much of Pakistan’s rural economy runs on the labour of women, and so do many of our factories. Many are still un-empowered because they have no control over the income they earn, nor do they have the support to challenge authority in the community.
But what surprises me is the timidity of economically better off, educated women who have many options, but choose to limit their potential arc of experiences by accepting the status quo at so many levels. They often bring good education home to accept the parameters set by others, allowing privilege to cocoon them from too much sweat. Elite women in South Asia have extended families and domestic care-givers, so they have flexibility with time even when raising children, and while many now are taking their careers seriously, many just don’t want to go out there and work.
Luckily, this trend is changing. Women now run corporate empires, lead unions, fly planes quite routinely in Pakistan. They are the real agents of irreversible change in our otherwise chequered national story.
As a young girl, what dreams and ambitions did you harbour in your heart and mind? Which ones came true?
I have a very strange relationship with ambition.
I don’t quite trust it. For myself I have never had any ambition other than to have my voice heard. This is a very broad goal, and I have never made life-plans and five-year maps like I see many men, including my husband, doing.
But I do have anxieties. The one thing that does keep me awake at night sometimes is how best to help bring reform in Pakistan. What kind of country are we leaving behind for our children? Certainly not better than the one we grew up in. I keep thinking the clock is ticking, and I have not done enough, or played my part in bending history.
Time is really the only currency that matters.
Politics is the ultimate vehicle for change. But the paths to progressive politics in this environment have often been littered with pain and tumult, although I have no regrets at all. In fact, I would probably make the same choices all over again. At a personal level, I find writing the most fulfilling and autonomous act of creation, whereas politics has given me both a soapbox and an ability to seek change, be a cog in the highway of public opinion and much-needed reform. I just wish I had been able to do more for women, for minorities, for the most vulnerable, while I was holding office, although I just held office in Pakistan for a year, not counting the ambassador’s stint. In that one year I did push through the Sexual Harassment Bill through cabinet, which at that time faced a lot of opposition. Similarly, the long reform path of the Hudood laws, fought with many other exceptional people, was an uphill battle, but we did push that through too, plus a number of media freedom laws.
Must confess I always wanted to work in a think-tank, and because very few non-state ones existed in Pakistan, I set up the Jinnah Institute. Now I dream of an educated, tolerant Pakistan littered with think tanks, ideas, innovation, reform, all driven by its new hope, the young people of Pakistan, including its vibrant, wonderful women.
In your view, how does a woman cultivate career success and also enjoy life outside of work?
I won’t tell you that it’s about finding a balance, because that is just obviously the first thing to seek. What I will tell you is that if you want it all, you have to be prepared to be up many hours in a day. I can’t at all remember when I slept for eight hours, but that’s the way I have chosen to measure out my days and nights, not in the coffee spoons of TS Eliot’s famous Prufrock (‘Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’), who lived life in such moderation he forgot how to live.
And as I grow older, because I travel constantly, I seek much-coveted leisure time with myself and with my family. One only gets so many hours to read, talk, watch movies, so I like to spend time doing that, although I do enjoy time-out with old friends, just being myself.
I have learnt to delegate at work only in the last ten years, but there is still a control-freak pretending to be a perfectionist inside me. At home I am equally detail-fixated. An extreme example is even when I am in a different time-zone and continent running a high-octane meeting, I won’t let Nadeem host a dinner at our home in Karachi or Islamabad without my secretary in each house sending me detailed pictures of place settings, flowers, menu, flat ware.
How do you love, parent and lead while shouldering the responsibility of a high-profile career?
It’s like being on a high-speed train, all the time. Sometimes one feels a little breathless at this state of postmodern being, especially when my schedule takes me to three cities in one day. Politics is a 24/7 career, with little free time, or Sundays off. At its peak I have to say I used to find distances from my family troubling, especially between Washington and Karachi. Even when I would come to Pakistan those days, which was 18 tumultuous months as ambassador during an extraordinary crisis, my work made me report first to Islamabad. I could never have done it without my family. They were the rock I relied on, even if we spoke for two minutes during a day.
The only way to do this is to stay engaged with each other, or we lose our way. We still use a phone-chat family group to stay on top of our daily joys and sorrows, the need for chicken soup or for celebration.
Leadership is never something I chased. But when the situation presents itself, I never let it daunt me. Fear is the enemy of everything. It blocks your path to growth, which is vital for the human condition. And it is a daily beast one has to vanquish if one has to grow as a person.
Tell us something about your parents: your father the lawyer and educator and your mother, a seasoned career woman?
My father was a barrister who avoided government careers, or even becoming a judge, because of the freedom that goes away with such responsibilities. He was absolutely right. But public service, and education, were a passion, and so was mentoring young people. I feel that same pull to younger people as I grow older, wanting to smooth their paths, give them confidence, set higher standards because our future is now in their hands.
Father brought me up to consider a life of career. The first word he taught me to wrap my tongue around when I was a little girl was ‘constitutional law’! I would stumble of course, but he would persist until I got it right at age four or five.
My mother too, before she retired from the State Bank as its first woman executive director, never gave up one day of work for anything.
Except probably for me! She made choices few women would have the courage to make even today.
Even in her older years, she carries on supporting the vulnerable, teaching children in bus-schools, gently reminding me that one’s work in a developing country is never done.
Tell us of your experience of growing up in Karachi – your days at Karachi Grammar School, your friends and family?
Karachi defined my first thirty years. The bulk of my years at KGS, from kindergarten to A levels, were happy ones. The people I made friends with at age four are still my closest friends, and I am very fortunate to have them in my life today. My closest friend, Zahra Arif, is someone I can’t imagine life without, no matter where either of us is in the world.
But Karachi was also home to the most formative years of my professional life, first at the Star, then as editor of the Herald for ten years. Those days Karachi was a heady place, and we all roamed free on its balmy streets. We didn’t go to malls for entertainment. We drove about, talked, discovered the slow joys of enduring friendships in real time, not on smart phones. Paradise Point was actually a pristine beach everyone posed breathlessly for photos in, now only reached via a road paved with much more than our good intentions – a gridlock of trucks and tankers.
I was a young journalist when we chronicled the end of Karachi’s innocence somewhere in the mid 1980s, its street crime, its ethnic riots, its gang wars. It grew into this shape-shifting mega-city, with too many people trucking in to find their future, and no urban planning to accommodate such a tide. The Afghan jihad also transformed Karachi and its demographics, with profound implications of how women and minorities navigate social and public spaces now.
Today, Karachi is a city of enclaves and ghettoes, sadly, but it is still the ultimate urban habitat where aspirations and misery collide, where Cartier and cow-dung co-exist in proximity.
College in the USA and then the University of Sussex in the UK – which was the most exciting experience to a young woman charting her future?
Both were complementary, although totally different pedagogical universes. It all seems so long ago, and coated in a mist of youthful dolce vita-ism, and idealism. The wonderful Political Philosophy and rigorous Art History courses are still etched in my memory. I never forgot the classes on Karl Marx, still grappling with his successes and failures. I even wrote a poem on that, even though I am not a communist! (my lovely German Shepherd is called Marx, and my Labrador is Leon Trotsky) I went back to Smith College last year to pick up a medal they were awarding me, and I was amazed afresh at how secluded and pristine its gothic ivory towers still looked. What a luxury it was to study in that environment, yet I remember how I used to hanker to return home, because I only ever felt authentic in Pakistan, so eager to contribute to resisting the martial law of Zia-ul-Haq and the freedoms it took away from us.
Since then, so much of my life directly and indirectly has been spent in that struggle: women’s rights, minority rights, the encroachment of extremism on social spaces, media freedoms, the political and intellectual fight for Jinnah’s Pakistan. Maybe it’s a drop in the ocean, but I know I will spend the rest of my life doing that. No tea and naps in the afternoon just yet. I very much look forward to retirement, with my husband, when destiny ceases to force its way into my life.
Sometimes, I wonder if I had been born in another country, I would probably be a writer of books and articles and poems.
My idea of a perfect life is one that is littered with rooms full of books, dogs, art, flowers, Puccini, pucca raag by Begum Akhtar or Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and the life of the mind. Whenever I see a tree that has become a friend outside my window in the lovely old house I am lucky enough to live in, I hope that soon one day I will be living more of that slower life.
Real life is full of schedule stress, meals on the fly, and time deficits. In my dream life, I would not be constantly travelling, negotiating laws, stuck behind an ambassador’s desk writing late-night telegrams home, or writing on conflict and terrorism.
Pakistan got in the way of that vision of a serendipitous life pivoted on ideas. But Pakistan is what made me what I am. I would have been miserable if I had not given back or at least tried to be part of the national story for change.
Tell us something about your relationship with your daughter and how it has evolved over the years?
My daughter Marvi is the light of my life. She is very different from me in some ways, yet in some, very alike. Such is the power of the Rehman genetic footprint (I have never changed my last name).
Although I do thank the Lord she didn’t inherit my long nose! She is sensitive, like most people involved in the creative process. She draws upon her own interior life and senses to create original art, and to teach young people art. She graduated from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in fine art, not some school abroad, and I am very proud of that. She also writes well, like I like to think I did.
And probably like me, she has more than one career path defining her.
I was a tough mom when she was a kid, unlike a lot of modern parents whom I see deferring to their children, because I think parents need to lay boundaries. As a result, my daughter has manners I can be proud of. But I can’t imagine telling her what choices to make as an adult. I am sure I am a terrible nag, though, with free, unsolicited advice on tap all the time! Of course, there is little I can do about vanishing make-up from my dresser…Nadeem and I also have three more daughters, all grown up, working and living in different cities: Seher, Sadaf, and Sawad. They are great girls, and I love spending time with them, especially family holidays together.
How long have you been married to Nadeem Hussain and how would you describe your relationship with him? Partner and soul mate?
Nadeem and I have been married now almost fifteen years, but it feels like yesterday when he proposed to me on the beach, staining the knees of his tux on wet sand, with a live band under a white marquee for two. Since we married this is the first time we are actually living in the same city after the first two years, but neither of us can imagine life without the other.
At different times in our lives, we have to step back and make room for another’s choices. But mostly it’s been him making room for mine.
He has been a partner, soul mate and irreplaceable friend through thick and sometimes very thin! Both our work lives have taken us in separate directions very often, but we have been there for each other in times most couples would find challenging. As a banker he was totally un-used to going to police stations to find the one I was locked up in for my political views during dictatorship days.
Later, when I was ambassador in Washington, yet accused for blasphemy offences in Supreme Court cases in Pakistan, he would run about to lawyers for days on end to find those brave enough to sign their names on my petition. Those were tough days, when some of the biggest names in the legal and human rights world would not stand up to be counted. I would be at work in the US by 5.30 am usually, but for talking to lawyers and police personnel involved in a death penalty case, be up through the night for Pakistan time. He was not in the same country, but still by my side all the time, commuting every six weeks to Washington to be with me.
Then there were times he didn’t know for hours if I was dead or alive, unable to reach me on shattered cell phones when I was with Benazir Bhutto in each of the bomb blasts that marked her return to Pakistan, and then her apocalyptic assassination. At no point did he say to me that I should reconsider my frontline ways in a deadly game that usually ends in liberal voices being snuffed out in violent ways.
My life has not exactly been a bed of roses, but I have always let it seem like that, with NH as I call him, at my side. He still keeps bringing home the roses.
Interviewer: Amna R Ali
Photography: Kohi Marri