You must have confidence, build bridges of friendship and work with dedication. – Nasim Firdaus
WHAT INTRIGUED YOU TO PURSUE DIPLOMACY?
After clearing my examination in 1976, I joined in 1979. In 1976 there were no jobs available for anyone, let alone for women. This was the best service available. That is how I got into it. At that time, service was at the top of everyone’s list.
WHAT WERE YOUR MOTIVATIONS DURING THE BUILD-UP OF YOUR CAREER?
I was already working at that time. I am a student of home economics and that was and is considered the lowest possible denominator in education. There were no jobs for students who studied this subject. A big part was played by my family members who were all qualified professionals, and that motivated me to be better and pursue challenges in my career.
WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES THAT YOU FACED DURING THAT TIME?
The first challenge was not getting a job because I am a woman. I knew I had done well in certain interviews but I got rejected for positions which were for “men”. There was very serious lobbying set against me joining in the Foreign Service, but despite all that I could only join because Sheikh Mujibur Rahman set a 10 per cent quota for women and that helped me get this job. Women were only expected to show up and sit at a desk, no one challenged their intellectual capability. This “male-dominated” work culture was the biggest challenge I would say.
AT THAT TIME COMMUNICATING AND MAINTAINING COMMUNICATION OF SEVERAL DELEGATES REQUIRED A LOT OF EFFORT. HOW DID YOU DO THAT?
You have to basically do three things. Firstly, you have to be a good conversationalist. If you talk to the diplomats about only weather, they would not take you seriously. So you need to talk about what is relevant to them and what is relevant to you. That’s why you need to read a lot of books. Secondly, you carry yourself nicely and wear clothes that represent your culture because it creates an impression that you made an effort and it makes the other person feel important. Also, try to wear clothes made in Bangladesh because wherever you go, you are representing your country, so when someone asks where did you buy this from, you can proudly say, “Bangladesh”. Thirdly, you invite them and treat them with some good Bangladeshi cuisine, you entertain them and keep your house well. Give them the impression that you have a culture.
“I DECIDED I WANT TO HELP THE WOMAN IN BANGLADESH TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS AND HELP THEM THROUGH HURDLES THAT THEY MIGHT FACE IN THIS MALE-DOMINATED SOCIETY”
PROFESSIONAL WOMEN FACE ULTIMATUMS IN A LIFE IMPOSED BY SOCIETY TO CHOOSE BETWEEN FAMILY OR WORK. HAVE YOU FACED THIS?
Most importantly, your family has to be supportive, not only in terms of providing facilities but mental support is important too. Also, role models like my sister and my cousins in my family helped too to support me in maintaining a good work-life balance.
HOW WAS THE TRANSITION TO CIVILIAN LIFE?
I decided I want to help the woman in Bangladesh to achieve success and help them through hurdles that they might face in this male-dominated society. So the day I retired, I went to my friends in the NGO sector and said I want to set up a training school for women where I would teach them self-confidence and other necessary tools that they need to achieve leadership positions. The name for this organization is Bangladesh Alliance for Women Leadership.
MRS MAHMUDA HUQ WAS THE FIRST WOMAN IN THE SERVICE AND THEN YOU?
No. She was a political appointee and joined the Foreign Service much later … maybe in 1984. But I am the first female Foreign Service cadre as well as civil service officer in Bangladesh.
and how was it?
Generally welcoming and I was the only woman among 10 men in the service that year … some eyebrows were raised.
COULD YOU PLEASE TELL US WHO WERE THEY THAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT?
They were some senior officers and they asked me to leave the Foreign Service as it was not meant for a woman. They did not think much of me. Their attitude was extremely negative. But that only made me more determined to prove that they were indisputably wrong.
DID YOU SUCCEED IN PROVING YOURSELF?
I believe I did. As a woman, you must learn a lot of things yourself out there because one slip and people would not trust you later for getting any work done. I was first posted to Brussels without the usual training as the 1st Secretary in our embassy. I put in everything — hard work and dedication — but it was difficult. There I met my first mentor — late Ambassador Faruq Ahmed Chowdhury.
YES, HE WAS A GREAT DIPLOMAT AND A PERFECT GENTLEMAN. COULD YOU PLEASE TELL US ABOUT HIS BLESSINGS FOR YOU.
He literally trained and helped me to grow as a diplomat as well as a bureaucrat. He was a genuine and proper diplomat. Then came Ambassador Manzur Chowdhury, So, I was lucky to have two giants as my mentor.
YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT YOUR SUCCESSES THAT GAVE A SHOCK TO THE MALE CHAUVINISTS?
The first was the one in charge of the 14th Islamic Foreign Ministers’ Conference in 1983. Then while in Geneva I organised the repatriation of some 70,000 Bangladeshis stuck in the Gulf War by managing to get the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Shah Md Farid was the Labor Secretary in Libya.
Another significant thing about which I am very proud of is the remembrance of our 1952 Language Movement on 21 February 2000 as the deputy High commissioner in Islamabad for the first time ever. I roped in British and the US envoys to join, which forced the Pakistani leadership to attend and pay respect to our heroes they always deny. Last but not least, I was welcomed by President Clinton in his private quarters to have Iftar in 1997.
YOU HAD A WONDERFUL CAREER AND ARE STILL WORKING IN THE FIELD OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT. ANY ADVICE TO THE NEW GENERATION?
It’s a challenging job to be a diplomat. They must have confidence, build bridges of friendship and work with dedication. I sometimes envy the current generation, they have so many opportunities. You should take advantage of these opportunities. We have one of the most vibrant youth at this time and should remember that you cannot be rich overnight. Run after yourself, make yourself better and better.