ISLAMABAD – Addressing a roomful of Pakistani women Friday afternoon at the National Art Gallery here, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made every effort to connect with her audience. But after enduring multiple security checks and waiting over four hours for the secretary to arrive, most women left unimpressed.
“Frankly, it was a waste of my time,” said one assistant professor from the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (FJWU) in Rawalpindi, who asked not to be named. “[Clinton] wasn’t interested in hearing the about the layman’s problems or the reality of our daily lives.”
That caused many, such as Shazia Marri, the information minister of the Sindh province, to leave the meeting frustrated that their concerns were not heard. “Emancipated women in Pakistan have a clear point of view that did not come across,” she said.
The local media has described Mrs. Clinton’s three-day visit to Pakistan as a “charm offensive.” Her town-hall meeting with female activists, lawyers, journalists, parliamentarians, and businesswomen from across the country was meant to conclude the trip on a high note, particularly in the wake of Wednesday’s car bomb attack on a Peshawar market that killed 117 – mostly women.
In her interactions with Pakistani women, Clinton tried to engage in personal-level diplomacy. Explaining how the US would support democracy in Pakistan, Clinton discussed the importance of “habits of the heart,” such as tolerance and compromise, which could be ingrained within families and by teachers in schools. Addressing concerns about aid delivery, she described how the US government organized a team of female Pakistani-American doctors to treat internally displaced women. And in a rare digression, she reminisced about an exchange of family photographs with the late former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Clinton attempted a relaxed manner, with an aside about having a Pakistani roommate. But her jokes about visiting Pakistan and not discussing security for once failed to win over the crowd. Pakistani women – much like the country’s youth and professionals, whom Clinton met in similar meetings in Lahore on Thursday – seemed more keen on discussing security issues. The questions that met with most applause from the audience were on US drone attacks, alleged American designs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and whether the US intended to pressure India to settle the long-standing Kashmir conflict.
Several audience members said Clinton's answers did little to allay their concerns or skepticism. “The responses were as expected,” added Ameena Saiyid, the managing director of Oxford University Press.
Many women, including Zainab Azmat, a resident of the South Waziristan tribal agency, currently lecturing at Peshawar’s Institute of Management Sciences (IMS), complained that Clinton’s answers were too “reserved.” Ms. Azmat added that the intention of the meeting was unclear. “Why were we here? What did they want us to ask? What did they want to convey to us?” she asked.
It didn’t help that many women objected to the format of the discussion, which was moderated by five female news anchors. Before Clinton arrived, one State Department representative explained that the format aimed to imitate the popular talk show, ‘The View.’
But it seems the women were not all convinced that the show is what the meeting most closely mirrored. “This meeting was as micromanaged as our country’s internal affairs,” quipped the FJWU professor. “[The Americans] were trying to retain the upper-hand in the conversation.”
Fariel Salahiddin, a financial consultant with Ministry of Information, still found the visit valuable, however. It is "admirable that Clinton is making this effort to reach out," she said.