PAKISTANI Ambassador Abida Hussain has come to the United States to make history. The Islamic nation's first woman to serve as the top envoy to Washington, she faces challenges that are unique compared with what most developing-world diplomats confront here.
Elegantly wrapped in traditional Pakistani garb, Ms. Hussain speaks in flawless English, accented by a European education. Sitting back as she counters harsh Western judgment of Pakistan, she sounds more like a practiced politician - indeed, she's been in politics for 20 years - than a diplomat.
Her very appointment, she says, belies the common American belief that Pakistani women are battered, second-class citizens, victims of Islamic fundamentalism. That myth, she says, is only part of the larger disconnect in United States-Pakistan relations.
The broader picture reveals US distrust of Pakistan's government. Accusations range from corrupt Pakistani practices that have poisoned the international banking environment to the Muslim state's creation of an "Islamic bomb."
Hussain is poised to act as a chief emissary of her government. Long part of Pakistan's power center, she and her husband (who remains in Pakistan as minister of education) are members of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's inner circle. Hussain served as a minister and an adviser on population control before accepting the job in Washington this past November.
Her work was a priority in Pakistan, which ranks among the world's poorest and fastest-growing countries. "By choosing me," she says, "my prime minister is sending a signal that he considers furthering relations with the US very, very important."
Late last summer, Hussain had a bitter taste of just how difficult her job would be. "I visited America during August and September, and I was very hurt by what I read and what I saw."
She refers to the extensive media coverage of the Pakistani-founded Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which has been indicted in several countries for defrauding depositors and corrupting national banking practices.
Allegations abound concerning BCCI's involvement in a vast international network of arms, illegal drugs, and terrorism. The bank's founder, Aga Hassan Abedi (Islamabad officials have refused his extradition to the US) and virtually all of the top bank officials are Pakistani. Most of its 171 offices have been shut down worldwide, but BCCI is still open for business in Pakistan.
Media reports from Islamabad indicate seething Pakistani resentment toward the US for trying to destroy this "bank of the third world."
BCCI exacerbated an already poor US image of Pakistan, says Hussain. The country, partitioned from India and founded in 1947 as a separate Muslim state, has over the years reinforced its identity with Islamic traditions.
Before the BCCI expose, she says, "We were already seen as hand-chopping, head-cutting Islamic extremists. Now the American view seems to be 'We don't know about you fundamentalists - you are awfully corrupt.
This has strengthened the ambassador's resolve "to prevent Pakistan from becoming a favorite whipping boy. I'm here to correct perceptions on this score."
Washington is very ill at ease with Pakistan's nuclear-development program. On Oct. 1, 1990, US policymakers severed foreign aid to Pakistan after the US State Department refused to certify that Pakistan did not possess an atomic bomb.
US Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, author of the Pressler Amendment that stipulated the aid cutoff, visited Pakistan Jan. 13. There, he says, he was refused meetings with both the prime minister and the president. Pakistani officials deny they can quickly assemble nuclear weapons, as recently charged by Central Intelligence Agency Director Robert Gates. (See accompanying story.)
AS the nuclear storm rises, Hussain forges ahead on a number of other fronts. In recent weeks, the ambassador spoke at the International Monetary Fund about economic and political realities in Pakistan and delivered an address on women in Pakistan at the Asia Society. She's well-versed in these topics.
Her work on women's issues has included some 25 years of experience in the field. She concedes that serious problems persist for females in a society grappling with modernity and Islam. Islam in Pakistan is driven by both religious beliefs and nationalism.
While the ambassador is clearly a member of a small, elite, and progressive social class, she cautions against "using modern yardsticks to measure the development of women in Pakistan." She prefers to highlight quality-of-life improvements for the average Pakistani woman.
"Forty years ago, there were very few females who were visible or audible," she says. "My mother, who was in purdah [seclusion from men], socialized only with women, and only in the home. That was in the 1950s and we belonged to one of the more modern families."
The ambassador's own two daughters, now at Harvard University, are exposed to contemporary society well beyond the modern Pakistani experience.
Pakistani females are an integral part of the work force, which is largely outside the major cities and towns. More than two-thirds of Pakistan's inhabitants live in rural areas, where women work on farms and in the fields. In urban areas, female employment is far lower.
The overall literacy rate in Pakistan is extremely low. The rate for females is particularly low: It has risen to 22 percent, from 15 percent 10 years ago. Such progress cannot be taken for granted.
Right-wing religious parties in Pakistan oppose the government's "lenient" approach to women, and seek to apply tougher Islamic laws that curb freedoms such as the right to work or to divorce. The country's legal system is a mixture of Islamic, tribal or traditional, and British common law.
Hussain carefully describes the legal framework and its application by Pakistanis, which can vary radically according to social standing and education. "If a woman is raped, it is acknowledged only where the family feels sociologically strong enough to acknowledge it."
How such crimes are redressed depends on the family's level in society.
"If I were raped, in all probability my husband would proceed through the police and the courts."
On the other hand, "If my maid were raped, her husband would not take the matter to court. He would try to kill him [the rapist]."
Such crimes of passion, as she calls them, are commonplace among the impoverished masses (per-capita income in Pakistan is about $400 per year) and in areas where tribal law reigns.
"Pakistan has emerged out of colonial rule," Hussain explains. "In your part of the world, it's seen as 'Islamicizing'; we consider it 'indigenizing.' This creates some misperceptions, such as the idea that Pakistani law is based solely on Islamic precepts."
Pakistani law is a combination of Islamic jurisprudence (Sharia) on the local level and British common law at the highest level, in the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
"Any sentence on the local level is appealable on the Supreme Court level," Hussain says.
In Washington, Abida Hussain is trying to appeal the harsh judgment handed down by US policymakers. She says Pakistan is left to counter what it sees as unjust treatment of a friend the US no longer thinks it needs.