Pakistan selects female envoy for India talks

Pakistan is poised to appoint its first female Foreign Minister before almost immediately dispatching her to India for crucial talks due to take place later this month.

Hina Rabbani Khar, 34, has been serving as acting Foreign Minister for several months and her elevation was widely expected. Yesterday, it was reported that the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, had approved her appointment before he left for a visit to Britain and that his recommendation had been sent to the President's office for formal confirmation.

"Ms Khar is expected to be sworn in as Foreign Minister later this week," a Pakistani official told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

"The government wants Pakistan to be represented by a fully-fledged Foreign Minister in the forthcoming talks with India and it is because of this reason that the position of Hina Rabbani Khar is being elevated."

Ms Khar, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, is from a powerful political family based in Punjab. Her father is Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar, a former provincial minister. After studying in Lahore, she completed a master's degree in management from the University of Massachusetts. She owns a popular restaurant in the grounds of the Lahore Polo Club. Two years ago she added a new footnote to Pakistan's political history by becoming the first woman to deliver a budget speech in the national assembly.

"Women are generally not doing well on the social ladder in Pakistan," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a Lahore-based political analyst. "But women from powerful families, who have the benefit of Western education, do hold senior positions within the bureaucracy, in medicine, in education and research ... We are now also seeing more women in the national assembly."

But some believe Ms Khar's promotion has a simpler motive. "The appointment is another glaring example of political patronage. Ms Khar has few, if any, credentials for the top job at the foreign office, even if she appears to have acquitted herself reasonably well as a junior finance minister under [the former leader, President Pervez] Musharraf," said Dr Farzana Shaikh, a fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, based at Chatham House in London. "However, what she does have in spades is the political clout of her family name and the rich, feudal, patriarchal aura that comes with it."

If, as reported, Ms Khar is formally confirmed in the job, one of her first tasks will be leading the Pakistani delegation to Delhi for talks with her counterpart, SM Krishna.

In the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the relationship between India and Pakistan, always tense, turned increasingly sour.

Commentators have pointed out that dealing with the authorities in Delhi will not be her only challenge. Her elevation comes at a time when relations between Pakistan and the US are at an all-time low. A perhaps even greater test will be the way she deals with Pakistan's military, which has always traditionally controlled key issues of foreign policy, especially in relation to both the US and India.

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