“I think the biggest challenge for us, women, is that we are never too sure of ourselves. Do I go this way or that way? What do I do? We ask ourselves so many questions that by the end of the day, by the time we have the answer, it’s already too late.”
In an interview with Joanna Socha, Ambassador Chohan shares the biggest lessons she has learned on her journey so far and why trusting yourself is a major ingredient of success.
Joanna Socha: I’m curious about the beginning of your career. What challenges did you face as a young woman in Pakistan striving to pursue a career in foreign service?
Naela Chohan: The biggest challenge for me was coping with people trying to talk me out of it. When I was working towards starting my diplomatic career, our country was governed by President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. He had a very fixed view of things, specifically about women coming into diplomacy. To get into the foreign services study path, you had to pass four phases: written exam, interview, medical examination and psychological interview. The most challenging for women was the last one because that’s when they would try to talk them out of it. I heard things like: “Why do you want to join the foreign services? You would have to travel abroad, you would not get married, you will have a lonely life, you will be all by yourself, no one will marry you”, and all sorts of things, a lot of pressure.
But I wasn’t interested in getting married; my hormones were pretty under control, so at the psychological exam, when the psychologist asked me: “You’re such a nice-looking girl, why would you like to join foreign service?” I said: “Well, I did well in my written exam, I was on the top in my interview, and I have a master’s in international relations. I have no reason to choose any other job.”
Then I heard all these things: “But you’re going to live abroad and become very open-minded and Pakistani men are going to become very insecure with you so it won’t help you,” or “you will never get married, you will be all by yourself, it will be a very lonely life, so think about that.” I also heard: “We’re happy to help you chose another service.”
Then I thought: I am not dating anyone, I’m not engaged to anyone, I’m not in love with anyone, and I’m not going to leave what I have for what I don’t have, because even if I don’t go into foreign service, what guarantee have I that I’ll get married? You can be an accountant general, but if you’re not married, then you’re not married.
Luckily, I was rather stubborn: “Foreign service or no service, throw me out if you want!” So I stood up.
Today the number of women in foreign service is continually increasing, and they are doing really well, because women, when given a chance, are very dedicated. Once they choose something, they are committed to it, and they are doing a great job.
Your career is obviously extraordinary. Would you say the challenges women face in your part of the world are harder to overcome, compared to the Western world?
Well, Joanna, it’s not specific to this part of the world. When I was posted to the UN, I realized that the problems women face are universal. The manifestations can be different; the intensity can be different depending on the social and cultural norms and the level of education. There are factors that play into women’s active participation and decision making in whatever field they wish to go to.
All around the world, there is a debate about the differences in salaries for men and women. According to Julia Guillard, when a woman breaks a glass ceiling it falls on her. So, it’s not about being from this part of the world or that part of the world.
The pressure is on for women everywhere. As a woman, you don’t always have the total freedom to be yourself. The world is changing, of course, but the challenges are still there. Women who have the opportunities to grow, have to reach out to women who don’t; but in my experience, half the time women limit themselves and others, instead of expanding horizons.
I love the idea of women needing to reach out to other women. But could you expand on the aspect of limitations?
If you look at the anthropological perspective, the guardians of social values are women. It’s your mother who will teach you how to dress, how to carry yourself. It’s not your father. It’s your mother who will train you to be a woman. And in the process, subconscious biases are introduced, and you create your own paradigm of being a “good woman,” and you really limit yourself. When you try to push the boundaries, you realize that you can do it, not radically, but gradually.
In my family, I was the first girl to be born in four generations. So when I was born there were big celebrations. Normally, as you say, in this part of the world, when girls are born, there is sadness. But when I was born, there were parties, food given to the poor, money given to the poor. When I was born, there were so many celebrations that my mother would joke with my grandmother that they were celebrating as if we were celebrating a boy’s birth. By the way, my grandmother was also a very progressive woman for her times. She was educated, she was an avid reader, she would always make me sit on her lap and read stories to me. And she provided me with all the opportunities that boys had. And perhaps I was fortunate in that, but I also realized that my limitations were in my own mind most of the time. Every time I thought – can I do it, can I go out at this time of the day, can I go out at this time of the night when I decided to do it – nothing happened, but that fear was within me.
In Paris, at UNESCO headquarters, there is a painting of mine called “Encaged” I painted a woman who is half in a cage, half outside. She’s bigger than the cage, but the cage is covering half of her mind. It’s the cage that we create for ourselves by limiting ourselves, whatever society we might be from.
I imagine that managing intense work with being a mom and having a husband diplomat could be challenging. How have you been managing your life as a diplomat and a mother through all these years?
I decided to accept all the challenges that come with the diplomatic career that I chose. I chose to be authentic, embrace my femininity and at the same time, work hard to be recognized for my own achievements.
When I started, I didn’t want to pretend to be like the men. I wanted to be seen as a smart and authentic woman. I knew I wanted to have babies and knew I wanted to nurse them once I had them. I breastfed each for two years and being a working mother to do that was really challenging. Luckily, I was organizing a daycare that was next to the office, thanks to which I could just breastfeed and come back to the office. Luckily, we were from the period that had more technologies so we could use breast pumps, allowing us to store the milk and feed the baby.
Despite the difficulties, I had made my choice to both achieve success in my career and embrace my femininity, because I didn’t want to compromise it just for the sake of my career. I wore lots of colorful dresses and jewelry. And imagine, in the office with that male mindset, a pregnant woman with colorful dresses. That was shocking, but I knew it was worth it.
Doing so many things required, of course, a lot of planning, time management. It wasn’t that easy, but I was determined to do it.
It sounds very time-consuming. How did you find time for it all, like painting, traveling, learning languages, and family?
I sleep very little, that’s true. That is a price I pay. I sleep around four hours, because I want to do so much and I think life is too short, so I can’t waste my time. Of course, I’m not perfect. I have made many mistakes in my life, but from my mistakes I learned, and I learned to move on and find new opportunities, instead of giving up. You should never lose heart; you should believe in yourself and if certain things don’t work for you, just smile and move on and try something different. But if you keep banging your head against the wall, you are basically just wasting time and hurting yourself.
You should keep on adapting and changing and moving on and adapting and changing and moving on and then you reach a fascinating level. You look back and think: wow, how beautiful everything was, but at that time you hated everything.
There is a difference between being a drifter and a flexible person.
A drifter is a person who does not really choose anything but just goes with the winds. A flexible person is a person who plans and sometimes their plans work and sometimes not. But if those plans don’t work, this person doesn’t lose heart, but creates new opportunity from it. And there’s always new opportunity that you create for yourself. So this is a message I would like to share from the experiences I had: the more flexible I was, the easier it became.
It’s very interesting. And I can see that we often self-sabotage before we even try. I remember thinking about changing my first job after about five years and going into international journalism. I’ve had so many doubts in my mind before I even applied for any position. Eventually I did and I’m so happy I decided to do it. But I remember being so caught up in my thoughts before I even tried.
Yes, that’s true and that’s the barrier in your head that you have to break and that’s what that painting in Paris is about: Encagement – can I do it, can I not do it, maybe my family won’t like it, maybe my friends won’t like it, maybe my boyfriend won’t like it, how will I manage. But give it a try; don’t give up before giving a try. And as you said, your plan did work out – and that’s the message from you and me to all the people reading W Insight thinking “should I try or not try it”. The boundaries are in your own mind.
Interview by Joanna Socha
Edited by Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka
Pictures: Courtesy of Naela Chohan