ISLAMABAD - The trend of Pakistani women diplomats breaking through the glass ceiling and competing for promotions to the foreign ministry’s senior levels continues to gain momentum. From the time that lone additional secretary, Ms Khurshid Haider, sat in Hotel Sheherzade, the change is marked and stark.

Now at home and abroad women professionals continue to gain prominence while also earning some coveted positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the elite service once virtually a male monopoly.

At present, Pakistan has 117 diplomatic missions abroad including consulates and embassies. The current strength of serving ambassadors is 76. The survey conducted by The Nation also suggested the existence of a clear trend of women officers preferring Foreign Service over the last five years.

Currently, at the headquarters, six women officers are in the top echelon heading key divisions including Americas, Europe, Middle East and Africa. They also hold senior positions in important divisions including South Asia. A dozen women officers are heads and deputy heads of missions abroad with an even larger number of relatively junior officers posted at important foreign missions, a sizeable number in European countries.

According to the latest data obtained from the personnel division of MOFA, of the current 490 serving officers, 68 are women constituting 14 percent of the total officer strength. Simply put, one in every 7 officers is a woman, a slight improvement from the previous year when the ratio was one in eight. Of the 68 women officers, one is a special secretary, five additional secretaries, three DGs and five directors.

For the first time in the history of foreign affairs ministry there are six women officers who have made their mark as special and additional secretaries, making their presence visible on the third floor reserved for ministry’s tops brass.

Ms Attiya Mehmood, the senior-most, is designated special secretary while Ms Seema Naqvi, Ms Naghmana Hashmi, Ms Ayesha Riyaz, Ms Naela Chohan and Ms Tasnim Aslam are all additional secretaries.

The high profile Americas division is currently headed by Ms Naghmana Hashmi, formerly Pakistan’s ambassador to Ireland. Notably, she is assisted by two women officers in this key division. Ms Mumtaz Zahra Baloch is director Americas and Ms Alaa Mazhar Bokhari the assistant director.

Ms Ayesha Riyaz, former ambassador to Switzerland, is currently the additional secretary Europe at the headquarters. However, she is due to proceed to Vienna next month for another ambassadorial assignment. She will then be replaced by another senior woman diplomat Ms Tasnim Aslam who has already been given charge as the acting additional secretary Europe. Ms Aslam previously served as ambassador to Morocco and Italy. She became the first female officer to be appointed spokesperson of the Foreign Office in 2005. Ms Naila Chohan, former ambassador to Argentina, now heads the Middle East and Africa division as additional secretary.

An equally important position of director-general South Asia division is held by Ms Riffat Masood, who served as consul-general in Los Angeles, US, before being given the charge of her current appointment. She is the second woman officer to head this challenging division – ambassador Zehra Akbari was the first. Ms Leena Moazzam holds the post of director-general Policy Planning and Public Diplomacy and another director-general rank officer, Ms Iffat Gardezi, is currently on a mandatory course in Lahore.

At the headquarters, women officers are also assigned to other important desks and directorates including UN, International Cooperation, ECO and OIC.

The names and countries of posting of women envoys from the Foreign Service cadre on ambassadorial assignments are: Ms Fauzia Abbas, ambassador to Denmark; Ms Humaira Hasan, ambassador to Portugal; Ms Tehmina Janjua, ambassador to Italy; Ms Zehra Akbari, ambassador to New Zealand; Ms Raana Rahim, ambassador to Lebanon; Ms Attiya Mehmood ambassador-designate to Indonesia; and Ms Ayesha Riyaz, ambassador-designate to Austria.

Notably no Pakistani woman career diplomat has ever been assigned the politically and strategically key ambassadorial postings, for example in China, India, Iran, Moscow or the US. The only three women who served as Pakistan’s ambassadors to the US – Ms Abida Husain, Ms Maleeha Lodhi and Ms Sherry Rehman – were all political appointees.

Women officers posted as deputy heads of missions (DHM) are: Ms Amna Baloch, DHM Sri Lanka; Ms Asima Rabbani, DHM Australia; Ms Aisha Farooqui, DHM Turkey; and Ms Samina Mehtab, DHM, Canada. Ms Saadia Altaf Qazi is, Consul, Houston (USA); Ms Farhat Ayesha, Consul, Shanghai (China); and Ms Batool Kazim, Consul, Vancouver (Canada). Another senior officer Ms Momina Banday is a minister at Pakistan embassy in Washington.

Moreover, several young women officers have been posted as counsellors, first, second and third secretaries in Pakistan’s diplomatic missions in some key world capitals including Ankara, Beijing, Colombo, Dhaka, Moscow, Madrid, Paris and Vienna. Notably three women officers including a counsellor, Ms Saqlain Syeda, are working at the Pakistan embassy in Beijing and two at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. Two women officers are posted in the UN mission to Geneva and one to the EU mission in Brussels.

Pakistan Foreign Service opened to women only in 1973 as a result of the 1972 Administrative Reforms but so far no government has appointed a woman foreign secretary. However, given the steady rise of competent and committed women professionals in the top hierarchy and on the frontlines of diplomacy, the prospects of Pakistan having its first woman secretary are not remote. The decision for this ultimately rests with the government of the day. India now has its third woman foreign secretary, the first one was appointed in the post in 2001.