Is Sheryl Sandberg really an inspiration for working mothers?

Earlier last month Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, admitted that she’s been leaving work at 5:30pm to be able to have dinner with her kids. While she’s been doing this for many years, it is only in the last two years that she felt comfortable about admitting it publicly.

The fact that this admission made headlines brings to light the huge hidden costs and informal penalties associated with choosing flexible hours, even if they are on your company’s official books. Sandberg was widely lauded for making this public admission, but it must be noted that she only did so at a stage in her career where she may be considered ‘unpenalisable’.

Sandberg has made it her mission to support women. She frequently gives speeches about promoting female leaders and what women must do to take responsibility for their own careers.

In her iconic speech at TEDWomen in 2010 titled Why we have too few women leaders’, viewed over 1.3 million times, she suggests three things that women must do to make it to the top. First, they must ‘sit at the table’ in the literal but also the figurative sense: Very often women stay on the sidelines and are not as proactive in seeking opportunities or negotiating their careers as their male counterparts. Next she asks women to choose partners in life who will support them in not only their career choices but will also split housework and childcare responsibilities. And finally, Sandberg argues that women stop playing the game way too early, sometimes when they’re even just trying for a baby. They need to keep their ‘foot on the gas pedal’ until it is truly and finally time to leave.

In this talk, while she admits there are institutional and external barriers that women face, she only wants to focus on what women can do themselves. This has been Sandberg’s unwavering stance at other forums as well and is summed up well in what she said in her Commencement Speech at Barnard College last year,

Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face—and there will be barriers—be external, not internal.

As such, Sandberg proposes what some have called “a private solution to a public problem”. Her efforts seem to be targeted to a certain elite group, or dare I say class, of women.

Sandberg’s uplifting and inspiring speeches have touched the hearts of many women. She herself is a living testament to the merits of her advice: If you’re determined, ambitious and don’t give up, you can make it to the top.

However, we have to acknowledge that other factors of a woman’s circumstances also come into play than just her attitude. Women from disadvantaged backgrounds, working low-income jobs, or from ethnic minorities are given less chances and opportunities in life. Or stated in the language of Sandberg’s TED talk; they are never presented with a table to sit at; they have less choice in the matter of choosing a partner who will enter into 50-50 household and childcare responsibilities (or like Sandberg, be able to afford a full-time nanny); and less choice of when, or even if, to leave their jobs.

Given women’s differing circumstances, a change in attitude or behaviour can be quite inspirational for some women, but it may not be enough for others. It only addresses one side of the problem by not taking into account systemic reasons and structural causes for women’s career struggles.

Factors such as legally instituted paid maternity and family leave, childcare support, provisions for breastfeeding at the workplace and health insurance cover are vitally important to support women, especially mothers, in their careers.

By not addressing these external factors, Sandberg puts the onus of responsibility on the women themselves. Women can continue to play the game as hard as they can, but they won’t be able to overcome what Sandberg calls a ‘stalled revolution’ until the playing field is levelled.

Structural and institutional factors determine the ‘choices’ women can make in their lives. For example, take the issue of maternity or family leave. The United States is one of the few developed countries where workers are not guaranteed paid family leave, according to a recent report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled “Failing its families: Lack of paid leave and work-family supports in the US”. HRW noted,

“Having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunisations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and caused mothers to give up breastfeeding early. Many who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance. Some women said employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers”.

In admitting that there is no such thing as a work-life balance for working mothers, Sandberg famously said that she used to pump breast milk while on conference calls at Google. While this admission shows that things are not easy when you’re juggling a high-powered career with family life, the fact that she was able to do so was a privilege and not a legally guaranteed right that other women in her country could also take advantage of.

Compare this to a low-income worker in the US who was interviewed by the Human Rights Watch in relation to their above-mentioned report. This woman was denied a place to pump breast milk for her baby when she returned to work after a six-week unpaid maternity leave. She had been mistreated by her employer during her pregnancy, did not have any health insurance and was later even denied time off for medical appointments for her sick baby. It is no surprise then that she suffered from acute postpartum depression. Would it have made a difference in her circumstances if this woman had taken on Sandberg’s 3-pronged career advice?

Sandberg is right about the fact that individual attitudes and choices are vitally important to help women succeed in their careers. Unfortunately they are not enough. These must be accompanied by societal changes, policies and laws that support women in the workplace, especially those who are less privileged.

Sheryl Sandberg has inspired countless women to seek ‘real equality in the workforce’. Frequently listed as one of the most powerful women in the world, Sandberg has the massive success and public leverage combined with her charming personality to achieve incredible advancements for women.

If she truly wants to see women leaders at the top, she must concern herself with women who are at the bottom.

This article was first published in the Express Tribune on 12 May 2012. You can find it here.

“Foreign Minister, your scarf has slipped off your head”

On her show aired yesterday on CNN, Christiane Amanpour suddenly stopped in the midddle of posing hard hitting questions to the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and informed her that her scarf had slipped off.

Yes, you heard me right: sandwiched in between questions about Osama Bin Laden and Pakistan’s relations with India, Amanpour found it perfectly natural to make this interjection.

Here is the relevant section from the transcript of that interview:

AMANPOUR: I just want to let you know that your scarf has slipped off your head. If you — if you care, you can put it back on right now. Otherwise, I can continue.

KHAR: Sure. Please continue.

AMANPOUR: OK. Perfect.

I was so shocked and enraged at this inappropriate and impertinent interruption that I found it hard to focus on the interview from then on. I have to wonder as to what was going on in Amanpour’s head when she said this.

– Did she think the Foreign Minister was sinning and perhaps she wanted to set a believer straight?

– Was she just being courteous to her guest, along the lines of “hey chica, just to let you know you’re flashing some cleavage there. Better fix it!”.

– Or was she scared for her guest’s life thinking some mullah in Pakistan will kill Khar for *gasp* showing off her hair?

You expect more awareness from a seasoned journalist like Amanpour. Or perhaps she was trying to be a bit too culturally aware. But anyone who has seen any pictures of Hina Rabbani Khar knows that she wears her scarf symbolically as part of her political persona (I don’t have any issues with that). Sometimes it does slip off and she fixes it without being too bothered by it. No one has ever thought it was such an issue before. And even if it weren’t symbolic and it, horror of horrors, briefly slipped off- why make such a fuss about it?

Would Amanpour have stopped the Ugandan President (who was the guest before Khar) to inform him if, let’s say, his spectacles had slipped off his nose? “Mr. President, I want to let you know that your glasses have slipped off your nose. If you care, you can put them back on right now. Otherwise, I can continue.”

President: Of course Christiane! Thank you for letting me know. How else could I  have answered such important questions about foreign policy if my glasses had not been securely fixed to my nose!

I have to give it to Hina Rabbani Khar though. For the briefest second she seemed confused or amused by this interruption, but after fixing her scarf, she continued to answer questions with a lot of poise and presence of mind.

Pakistan Diaries 3: Politics these days

I joined Tamreez and Elhaan this week and it’s great to see them again. Elhaan seems to have been influenced by Pakistani politicians and greeted me with estranged looks, perhaps complaining about my unannounced disappearance from his life for over a month and a half. He has decided to change parties. He who would only sleep in my arms now refuses to even let me hold him when he is sleepy. I am sure I will lure him back into my party soon.

Changing parties is the order of the day in Pakistani politics at the moment, as Imran Khan’s PTI has undoubtedly registered itself as the third big force in the political arena. It is yet to be seen if it is for the good.

In the UK, the Lib Dem vote bank in the last elections was mainly boosted by those who resented the two main parties. Likewise, Imran’s PTI is banking a lot on those voters who are fed up of the PPP/PML(N) led governments in the past.

Lib Dems also came up quite strong in the pre election polls yet could not translate that into tangible success. The momentum was still enough to give them a stake in the coalition government. Since then, the amount of U turns and compromises they have done, has completely shattered any hopes for them to do well in the next elections. I know there is a big difference in the two parties but still I hope PTI does not end up in the same boat if they do well.

The basic day to day issues like inflation, shortages of gas and electricity and the deteriorating condition of transport and infrastructure etc. are what people want resolved. A conversation with my driver who cannot read or write but yet carries a good insight into politics, sums up how a general voter thinks about politics. He has decided to vote for PTI in the next elections. When asked what convinced him to vote in favour of Imran Khan’s PTI, he said, “All my life I have seen others rule. They have been given more than one chance and they looted and destroyed my country. Imran Khan has a clean track record up till now and I can only hope that he is different from others. Worse comes to worst he’ll also do what his predecessors did. At least he deserves a chance”.



Emel and Oxfam organised the screening of ‘Miral’ last Thursday in London and I am glad I attended it. Director, Julian Schnabel stirred controversy with this daring film, based on a biographical novel by Rula Jebreal. I was shocked to hear in the introduction, that earlier this year on April 4th, a few days after the film was released in US, Juliano Merr-Khamis, an actor and peace activist who played a role in the film, was murdered outside his own theatre in a Palestinian refugee camp.

I grew up hearing the horror stories of Palestine. It is one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our time. The so-called “civilised” world knowingly has put a blind eye towards the unjustified atrocities committed by the Jewish state since it’s creation. In retaliation the other side also uses all means possible to inflict pain to their enemy. The fact is that human beings are suffering on both sides.

It’s very rarely that we get to see a glimpse of the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Miral is a daring endeavour to voice the human side of this conflict. It tells a story spanning 60 years, of 4 Palestinian women living under the conflict.

The first account is of Hind Husseini and her brave effort to establish an orphanage in Jerusalem after the Deir Yassin Massacre in 1948. Hind was an influential lady of Palestine, who one day finds 55 children on a street, orphaned by the massacre, and takes them home to give them food and shelter. Soon the number reaches over 2000, giving birth to an institute she names Dar Al-Tifel. The striking thing about her is her patience in the worst of situations. She knows there is very little she can do other than using her influence to shield these children from the wrath of the occupiers. Hind believes that education is the only way towards peace.

The story continues with the account of a female fighter, Fatima, who is serving 3 charges of lifetime after a bomb attack and the circumstances that led her to commit that act. In parallel, it shows the disturbed life of Nadia, Miral’s mother. In 1978, the 5 year old Miral (played by Freida Pinto) is brought to Hind’s Institute by her father following her mother’s suicide. Hind protects her too from the world outside the walls of Dar Al-Tifel. One day the girls are assigned to teach at a refugee camp when in an Army raid a local family is dragged out of their house and the house bulldozed to rubble. The rebel in Miral suddenly wakes up to the troubles surrounding Palestinian people.

She later falls in a romantic relationship with a character named Hani, who is a Palestinian political activist. Miral struggles to choose between her desire to join the cause of her people and Hind’s path of academia, keeping away from hostility. She gets involved briefly with the political activities but eventually decides to take on the route Hind paved for her. The film ends with her taking up a scholarship in Italy later becoming a journalist helping her people. Her courage throughout this struggle must be commended. Rula is that journalist who eventually wrote her biographical story under the name of Miral.

I don’t think the aim of the film was to highlight the conflict as a whole, but rather it focussed on highlighting a unique side to the lives of ordinary local women: from Hind’s patience, love and determination to Miral’s struggle from an early age and her dilemma to decide her path in life.

The film has still received a lot of criticism from the Jewish circles as it seems to put them is a negative light. Julian Schnabel however believes that “the film is about preserving the state of Israel, not hurting it. Understanding is part of Jewish way, and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But if we don’t listen to the other side, we can never have peace”. He said this at a rare screening of the film at the United Nations.

I must say it is an honest and brave attempt by the Israeli Director.

A hope or another One-Man-Show?

The historical PTI Jalsa (rally) has not only shaken many big mouthed veterans in the political arena but most importantly seemed to have kindled a political lamp in the hearts of many a muted-but-concerned citizens of Pakistan. That really means something. It was inspiring to read the running commentary of the Jalsa, on social media, by youngsters who normally shy away from political circles. Many attendees of the Jalsa I know never attended a political rally in the past.

PTI deserves a big applause on achieving this moment of glory, as Tamreez puts it, but a BIG question looms in my mind. Is it really PTI that I should applaud or the lone efforts and leadership qualities of one person, and that is of course Imran Khan?

Going with the cricket analogy, that Imran Khan so often reverts to, I would like to ask: Who are the Wasims and Waqars of his bowling attack and when are we going to see the likes of Zaheer Abbas, Miandad, Saeed Anwar and Inzi strengthening his batting line-up? or maybe the plan is simply to pull off another 1992?

No doubt, 1992 was one of  the rare victories in our history. But why is it that we are yet to repeat that feat? It is because we failed to nourish leadership in our ranks; solid batsmen in our batting line up who are consistent; our bowlers, although incredibly talented like Shoaib and Amir, lacked that vigour and vision or know-how of winning matches and you all have seen their careers.

I fear that Imran Khan might fall into the same trap as others did in the past in Pakistan. What PTI really needs is ‘Leaders’, like Imran Khan, who can rally the same support as he can and sadly I don’t know anyone else in PTI who can. We have seen enough of history repeating itself. I know it sounds idealistic but we should aim towards a “solution”, rather than a one-off victory, that stays solved for some time.

My request to Imran Khan is that he should let his other party leaders also stand with him in the front-line (they are not visible enough); get them seen and heard by the masses and make them leaders who know how to WIN. I think a true leader is the one who knows how to nurture leadership. If we are to challenge the big guns, that’s what parties like PTI should focus on. It is the only way to get somewhere in winning some stake in the 342-seat parliament. It’s all fair that Imran Khan has something to offer that’s better than other politicians but when it comes to elections what matters is who wins the most seats in the parliament. Does PTI have enough blood? That remains a question.

Saying all that, Imran Khan certainly seems to have scored high in the books of one influential entity in Pakistani politics: media. The media has become one of the most powerful stakeholders in Pakistani political affairs and I really believe they will decide who wins the next election, even more so than the army and intelligence agencies. No wonder stakes are high for the top anchors and some of them happily shift from channel to channel. PTI probably has no such influence yet but the last couple of days belonged to Imran Khan and finally his true entry into Politics (in the words of Sheikh Rashid of AML). Although MQM had a rally on the same day and that did try to steal the limelight but PTI’s Jalsa got a lot of post-Jalsa media mileage. The terminology used in the news tickers on various channels and by the analysts/anchors certainly hinted an inclination towards supporting his campaign for the next elections or it was probably just a frustration of the long standing PPP-Nawaz partnership. Let’s see if Imran’s bowling attack has the depth it needs to break that partnership.

The run up to the next elections cannot be more exciting and I hope the sleeping giant (the Pakistani public) finally wakes up.

Savouring the PTI Moment

PTIJalsaWhen was the last time you felt excited about Pakistani politics? I really can’t remember. But watching Imran Khan’s historic jalsa yesterday I felt a thrill similar to what I had felt watching the events unfolding in Tahrir Square a few months ago. Could this be the start of a Pakistani revolution? I don’t know, but PTI would have us believe so.

It was heartwarming to see that families had come even with young children, putting aside security concerns. Celebrities were there to add glitz and glamour to the proceedings, leading some critics on Twitter to question whether this was a political gathering or a concert. Shehzad Roy was a hit and Strings’ performance of “mein bhi dekhoun ga” worked really well on the crowds, but what brought tears to my eyes was the good ol’ qaumi taraana. And it must’ve been for romantics like me that they played the national anthem twice in the proceedings.

After hours of speeches and song performances, finally Imran Khan took to the stage. I guess people’s expectations had been built to unrealistic levels by the historic venue, massive size of the crowd and the long wait. While there was some substance, a few cricket inspired puns and a bit of wit, overall it was obvious that oratory is not one of Imran Khan’s many talents. Fortunately, on the personality front his star status and charisma somewhat compensates for this. If only he could hire a great Urdu speech writer and improve his speaking skills, we could have our own desi Obama.

Yesterday’s jalsa was historic in more ways than one. Not only was it the largest crowd ever gathered by PTI, it was perhaps also one of the largest ever convened at Minar-e-Pakistan. Also significant was that the PTI crowd was at least a few tens of thousand stronger than that which gathered just two days prior to hear Shahbaz Sharif speak.That’s saying a lot given Punjab is a PML(N) stronghold.

On a more superficial, yet significant note, never before have we seen the urban westernized youth attending a political rally in droves as it did yesterday (commentators have been using the term “jeans wearing” and “English speaking” to describe them). Their presence was significant for two reasons: First, this segment of society, epitomized in depictions such as ‘Slackistan’, is known more for its apathy than activism. Second, and more importantly, the youth comprises about 70% of Pakistan’s population and Imran Khan has been pinning his hopes on them, even dedicating his latest book to them. Many of them would be first time voters in 2013 and if someone can tap into this vote bank, it could really be a game changer.

I purposefully don’t go into policy, strategies and substance in this post. PTI achieved yesterday’s milestone after 15 long years of struggle. So before we ask hard-hitting questions and poke holes in their agenda and policies (or lack thereof), let us allow them this moment of glory. It is only fair.

No matter what one’s misgivings about Imran Khan and his party, one thing cannot be denied: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has finally arrived.

Once upon a time…

Just got a very interesting history lesson in Pak-US relations from Professor YouTube, I thought I’ll share with you all.

Around 50 years ago, a President of Pakistan, then considered “an important and powerful” country, visited the United States of America on a state visit. He was received by the American President and given a very honourable reception. Irrespective of what we think of Ayub and his era now, it’s amazing to see how high Pakistan’s stature was in the international arena.

Here is the video coverage of the visit:


America Welcomes President Ayub Khan of Pakistan 1961

What’s next for Egypt?

The popular uprising in Egypt has caught the world’s imagination by storm. Whether on Facebook, Twitter or news channels, everyone is talking about Egypt. And what’s happening is very exciting. I don’t remember the last time we heard of two million protestors coming out for something, let alone in the Arab world.

But a question I’ve been grappling with since the beginning of the protests is about the future of the country.

What happens when Mubarak leaves? What are the viable alternatives to the current regime?

– How likely is a military takeover? Some have been talking about the military taking over for the transition phase. Given that the military is widely respected and has take a pro-people stance, would that be a good thing?

– Is Mohammed El Baradei really the only leader on the stage and how rooted is he in the politics of the country? It sounds like he’s much more adept at foreign diplomacy but not really domestic politics. Some protestors have said he doesn’t have much support from them. So is he just aiming to lead a transitional government or does he have long term plans to lead the country? I was disappointed to hear he didn’t even join the protests today because of security concerns. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like a leader to me. Even our corrupt Pakistani politicians put their lives on the line and come out at public rallies.

– Amongst the opposition political parties, is the Muslim Brotherhood the strongest? And would their mass appeal/support be tolerated by the West (especially the US and Israel who have historically been Egypt’s allies)?

I’m not posting these questions rhetorically or even to be critical, but am genuinely looking for answers. So please do share your thoughts and if you’ve read any good analysis pieces, please do post them below in comments. Thanks!

Peace in Afghanistan through ‘three cups of tea’

The latest article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times titled ‘Dr. Greg and Afghanistan’ argued in favour of Greg Mortenson’s approach to peace and development. Mortenson is the acclaimed author of the book Three Cups of Tea in which he stated his mission as building peace ‘one school at a time’. His approach is a gradual one based on building trust and relationships with the local community for which having three cups of tea together is a metaphor.

Greg Morteson with school children in Northern Pakistan

While the US administration’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy also talks about ‘winning hearts and minds’, the crucial difference is that the Americans and their allies have been building schools and doing development projects on the back of the military. However these initiatives, referred to as ‘quick impact, quick collapse’ by many aid agencies, are either rejected by the local community or end up being targeted by the Taliban and thus endanger the lives of the very people they seek to help. Examples come to mind of amusement parks that were never used or schools to which no one sent their children for fear they would be attacked.

On the other hand, Mortenson argues that aid work should be done by the local community themselves with very little foreign involvement and must have the support of the local leaders. His schools have not been attacked because the local community takes ownership of them. Kristof’s article gives the example of a school for girls in volatile Kunar province to which the Taliban objected, but when the local community came to its defense the Taliban backed off.

As countless statements and reports by aid organisations have argued, including a recent statement by Oxfam criticizing the UK government’s aid policy, the ‘militarization of aid’, i.e. aid in favour of military and strategic objectives rather than actual development and poverty needs, will only lead to quick fixes that will will be unsustainable in the long run. This is what Afghans themselves are also saying, if only someone will listen to them.

In a survey undertaken by Mercy Corps in Afghanistan (see section 4.2 of survey), when asked if they had to choose one type of  organisation to implement a development project, the majority of respondents picked an international nongovernmental organisation (INGO), whereas their second choice was the shura (local governing/advisory body). While foreign military reconstruction teams were rated very low. Keeping this in mind, Greg Mortenson’s approach, bringing together international funding and local leaders, makes a lot of sense.

Mortenson has been widely consulted by US policy makers and military officials, including Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraus, the two architects of the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. While this perhaps may have contributed to a shift from a purely military strategy to the current COIN strategy, given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan it seems Mortenson’s advice and services have been used more for opportunistic information gathering and deal brokering with local leaders than a fundamental shift in policy and tactics.

Whereas everything else is so complex in Afghanistan, this is quite simple really: the military has no business doing development work. Let the soldiers fight the war and the aid workers build the dams, bridges and schools.

Pak-American relations?

Hilary Clinton’s latest visit to Pakistan this week ended up in the reiteration of the same old messages and not-so-covert threats. The key message boils down to “we want more from Paksitan” and the warning this time being:

“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that should an attack against the United States be traced to be Pakistani it would have a very devastating impact on our relationship”

It’s quite interesting to me that the Americans who have no idea themselves what they’re doing in the region and especially when their policy and war operation is in tatters in Afghanistan, still have the gall to dictate terms to Pakistan in such a high-handed fashion. Of course when they come armed with $500M in aid money from the Kerry Lugar Berman Bill (when was Berman added to the infamous Kerry Lugar Bill? I need to read more) that our government is quite keen to accept, it’s hard for the Pakistan government to speak out against such statements.

To be fair, there were some positive statements from Mrs. Clinton and an acknowledgement that the anti-US feelings amongst the Pakistani population are quite high. She said,

“We know that there is a perception held by too many Pakistanis that America’s commitment to them begins and ends with security,” said Mrs Clinton, who also held talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, while in Islamabad.

“We have not done a good enough job of connecting our partnership with concrete improvements in the lives of Pakistanis. With this dialogue, we are working to change that.”

There was also the announcement of a historic trade deal between Afghanistan and Pakistan that opens up Pakistan’s borders to the Afghans to reach India. While it sounds like a positive development to me for the Afghans and may go to improve relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, I’m still not clear how it would impact Pak-India relations. I hope it’s a positive step but so high is my skepticism of anything brokered by the Americans, that I feel quite wary.

The topic that I was most interested to hear about, the drone attacks in Pakistan, Clinton refused to comment on. Apparently there is no officially stated American policy on drone attacks. The Pakistan government publicly denounces but tacitly condones them. A BBC report noted that according to a conservative estimate over 200 people have died just in 2010 from drone attacks being carried out in Waziristan. While the tribal leaders keep screaming that these attacks are indiscriminately killing civillians, men women and children, they continue with the collusion of our government. It seems then the only people left who are speaking out (and ‘doing’ something) against this injustice are the radical anti-Pakistan elements. Is it any wonder then that the insurgency in Waziristan keeps mounting and the ordinary ‘citizen’ in these areas is a Taliban sympathizer?

If we don’t re-evaluate our counterinsurgency strategy, stop these attacks and stop selling our national sovereignty in return for aid packages, we will be in deep trouble. In fact we already are in deep trouble, I’m not sure what it would take for the government to realize that.