Journalist-turned-diplomat Maleeha Lodhi is no stranger to making history. When she started working for The Muslim, a now-defunct newspaper based in Islamabad, Lodhi was initially restricted to overseeing the printing and distribution of the daily. The London School of Economics graduate was among the first women to enter the field of journalism and quickly rose through the ranks to become an assistant editor tasked with writing editorials and helping edit copy from national reporters and international news agencies.
It was the careful handling of her intense workload that convinced the newspaper’s management to appoint her to its editorship—despite hesitation from some quarters that a woman would be unable to perform the job in conservative Pakistan. That post made Lodhi the first Pakistani woman to head a national newspaper—and eventually led to her becoming the country’s premier diplomat. In February this year, she was appointed Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N., where she has made it her mission to “defend and protect” Islamabad’s interests before the global body. “I am humbled by the fact that I became the first woman to be chosen for this position. I will try to rebuild Pakistan’s influence at the U.N. and ensure that our voice is heard on key issues,” she tells Newsweek.
Coming Up Green
Since becoming Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Lodhi has become a familiar sight around the offices of the global body. Often dressed in the same shade of green as Pakistan’s flag, she doesn’t shy from showing her love for her homeland. During the past eight months, she has helped transform the Pakistan Mission into a venue of cultural diplomacy, organizing a series of concerts featuring top Pakistani artists. She has also become a patron of philanthropic organizations headed by Pakistani-Americans and allows them to conduct fundraisers at the Mission for free. But her most vital responsibility, she says, is to project a positive image of Pakistan abroad.
“The most important thing is to change the narrative about Pakistan,” she says, referring to U.S. media chastising Islamabad for not doing enough in the war on terror. “For too many years, Pakistan has been stuck in a place that allows misperceptions and mistaken views of the country to prevail, and we have not done enough to change that,” she says. “The U.N. is the perfect place to try to change this narrative,” she says, “you have the world as your stage and therefore the issue you focus on and issues you decide to articulate can define how others see you. The opportunities are greater in a multilateral forum than in a bilateral setting.”
Lodhi says in order to mobilize support for Islamabad’s agenda, she must counter the “deliberate” misconceptions on Pakistan’s role in the war on terror and its support for the Afghan peace process.
The diplomat says she is a firm believer in the power of “cultural diplomacy” adding that she wants to project Pakistan’s “ancient civilization and our modern nationhood as a way of building understanding for our country and its great heritage and rich culture.” Her agenda also includes highlighting Pakistan’s priorities at the international level—especially as the global body turns 70.
“At this pivotal moment, the post-2015 development agenda is being adopted, which marks a watershed and a paradigm shift in development,” she says. “There will be a lot of work to ensure its follow up. Then there are important issues for Pakistan, such as U.N. and Security Council reforms,” she adds, referring to the long-awaited expansion of the 15-member body to make it more representative and effective.
The veteran diplomat says her priorities are shaped by Pakistan’s national priorities. “Pakistan’s economic revival and growth; the defeat of militant groups and violent extremists; normalization of relations with India on the basis of equality and mutual respect and resolution of outstanding disputes, especially Kashmir; promotion of peace and stability in Afghanistan; preservation of our strategic deterrence capability” are her top concerns, she adds.
But Lodhi’s biggest challenge might be in securing U.N. support for the resumption of a broad-based, comprehensive dialogue between Pakistan and India, especially on disputed Kashmir. This, she says, would require both states allowing the United Nations Mission in India and Pakistan—tasked with monitoring the Line of Control that demarcates the disputed region—to play a more effective role in preventing ceasefire violations and building respect for Pakistan’s position on nuclear deterrence and non-proliferation.
Fortunately for Lodhi, she has nearly two decades of personal experience and the work of her predecessors to help her accomplish these goals.
It was Lodhi’s writing and intimate knowledge of defense and foreign affairs at The Muslim that caught the attention of Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party who was elected into power in 1988 after four years in self-imposed exile. The politician asked Lodhi to consider a diplomatic assignment. “I was just starting out then as a full time journalist and told her it was too early for me to do this because I had not established my credentials or indeed made much progress in my career in media,” says Lodhi. In 1993, when Bhutto came into power again, she went back to Lodhi—and asked her to become ambassador to the U.S. “I told her I have no diplomatic experience,” says Lodhi, who was working as the editor for The News at the time. “But Ms. Bhutto said, ‘I didn’t either when I became prime minister’.”
Since then, Lodhi—who calls herself an “accidental diplomat”—has twice served as Islamabad’s envoy to Washington as well as the country’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. She was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States on September 11, 2001—and was witness to a pivotal meeting between then ISI chief Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. “The two of them were very tense,” recalls Lodhi. “Armitage told us ‘This is a grave moment. History begins today for the United States. We’re asking all our friends—you’re not the only country we’re speaking to—we’re asking people whether they’re with us or against us’.” According to Lodhi, Gen. Ahmed ended the meeting by asking Armitage what Islamabad could do for Washington. The next day, Armitage handed a list of seven points to Ahmed that continues to fuel debate between Washington and Islamabad.
But Lodhi’s role wasn’t done. After that meeting, she became the face of Pakistan in the media, explaining Islamabad’s position with respect to the Taliban. Her studied response then—and now—was: “We can change history but not geography,” referring to Pakistan’s engagement with Afghanistan as a practical imperative rather than an ideological desire.
Building on the Past
Lodhi says her predecessors at the U.N. have all been distinguished diplomats. “I have really big shoes to fill and would hesitate to say what I would do differently,” she says. “Yet it is also true that each Permanent Representative serves at a different time when environments are very different. So in a way each brings something different to this mission.”
But while the distinguished envoy has won acclaim in all aspects of her life—in 1994, Time magazine recognized as the only person from Pakistan who would help shape the 21st century; Harvard University’s Institute of Politics has described her as one of the most accomplished female professionals in the Muslim world; and she is the recipient of the Hilal-e-Imtiaz—she admits she has some regrets.
“I [do not] live in the past but even so my biggest regret is that I should have given more time to my family as I was pursuing my career. That’s why when young people seek my counsel, I always urge them to have a proper work-life balance.”
For now, Lodhi is tackling the global refugee crisis that has left Europe reeling. Sensing that the intensifying crisis would create a grave humanitarian situation, she organized a meeting on the subject at the U.N. earlier this month. It evoked so much interest that the small conference room overflowed with delegates either keen to participate or observe the proceedings. It was also among the first events attended by the newly elected president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark. With this meeting, Lodhi established herself as a “diplomat of reckoning” amongst the U.N.’s 193 member states and found herself thrust into the global limelight. It’s a spot she’s quite comfortable in.