The South Asia Channel

Ms. Rehman goes to Washington

For Sherry Rehman, her birthday present may have come one month early.

In a move that surprised many (including myself) who were playing the Pakistan's Next Ambassador to the U.S. guessing game, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani appointed Rehman to the post, hours after Husain Haqqani resigned in the wake of the Memogate scandal.

A former journalist and now Chairperson of Jinnah Institute, a think tank based in Islamabad, 50-year old Rehman has been through a rough two years. After resigning from her post in 2009 as Minister for Information following the tussle between the government and the judiciary over the government's clampdown on television coverage, Rehman set up her think tank while retaining her position in the National Assembly.

But in 2010, all of that changed. Sherry Rehman campaigned for amendments to the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan, after Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death in Punjab.

Pakistan's right wing went into overdrive. Rehman received death threats, and a fatwa was issued calling for her to be killed. She was confined to her house, under a self-imposed house arrest. After Punjab Governor and flamboyant liberal Salmaan Taseer was murdered by his guard for supporting Aasia Bibi, and months later the Christian Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated by gunmen, fears for Rehman's safety became more urgent. A court case was filed against Rehman by Saleem Akhtar, a shopkeeper in Multan, accusing her of committing blasphemy; in fact, all Rehman had called for was a change in the laws.

Rehman was forced to withdraw her bill calling for amendments in the Blasphemy Law. She resumed work on a number of initiatives being undertaken by the Jinnah Institute including working on a Track II India-Pakistan peace process and publishing reports on the Afghanistan peace process.

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Rehman comes from a prominent Sindhi family; her father was a well-known lawyer and judge, while her mother was the first female vice president of Pakistan's Central Bank. A graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts, she began her career as a journalist in the 1980s. Rehman went on to become at age 26 the youngest editor of the Herald magazine, a major Pakistani monthly. During her ten-year stint as editor, she was arrested and briefly held after the magazine ran a story critical of a government minister. After leaving the Herald, she wrote a book on Kashmiri shawls, The Kashmiri Shawl: From Jamawar to Paisley.

Rehman had met and became close to the late Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto during the former's time at the Herald. After Rehman left the Herald and published her book, she officially joined the party. In a 2009 interview with me, Rehman said, "A force of nature called Benazir Bhutto had decided that I would be in politics and it was virtually impossible to resist."

In 2002, she became a member of the parliament, taking one of the seats reserved for women, and was re-elected in the 2008 elections. In her own words, she describes the late Ms. Bhutto as "the guru." Rehman remained a close confidante of Bhutto, and as part of the core group of the PPP, helped formulate the party's election manifesto. Rehman accompanied Bhutto in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, when Bhutto was assassinated. It was in Rehman's car that Bhutto was rushed to hospital.

Rehman's relationship with the PPP has been an uneasy one in the years after Bhutto's death. She became Minister for Information in 2008 but resigneda year later after a clampdown on TV channels that were broadcasting the campaign to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry as Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court. In 2010, after she appeared on a television show for Geo News, rabid PPP supporters surrounded her residence in Karachi. The party issued a show-cause notice (asking her to explain herself) to her for appearing on the show against party orders.

While there are murmurs that her relationship with those controlling the PPP has taken a turn for the better, her appointment as ambassador has made many, including some in Pakistan's military establishment, heave a sigh of relief. A liberal, eloquent, politically suave and stylish, Rehman may just be the dose of stability required in Pakistan's civil-military relationship, and with Pakistan's relationship with the United States. However,her appointment has already made the religious right-wing parties scream bloody murder -- a leader of the religious party the
Sunni Tehreek said, "Rehman was already following "policies of the U.S. and the Jewish lobby as she tried to abolish the country's blasphemy laws." A petition has also reportedly been filed in a court in Multan against her appointment as ambassador, accusing Rehman of committing blasphemy in a TV show aired in 2010. How these objections play out in the coming days remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the Embassy of Pakistan awaits their new representative.

Huma Imtiaz works as a correspondent for Express News in Washington DC, and can be reached at huma.imtiaz@gmail.com.

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

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