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Pakistani Political Pros

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Envoy's Wife Serves as Parliament Member, President Spokeswoman

Like her husband, Farahnaz Ispahani is a former journalist. But today, she serves as a member of Pakistan’s national parliament and spokeswoman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, while her husband, Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani, represents their country in Washington.

Ispahani’s family has long been entrenched in the world of diplomacy and politics. She is the granddaughter of Pakistan’s first ambassador to the United States, Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani, and her uncle, Zia Ispahani, also served as a politician and former ambassador for Pakistan. And for three generations, the Ispahani family has had close ties with the family of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s late prime minister. But Farahnaz Ispahani did not choose politics — politics chose her.

A Karachi native who had also lived in London, Ispahani wanted to first try her hand at the fast-paced world of television news. After graduating in 1985 from Wellesley College with a major in political science, Ispahani landed a job at ABC’s Washington bureau. “I just got my foot in the door as a researcher,” said Ispahani, who as a college student remembers watching “The Evening News with Peter Jennings” on her tiny black-and-white television in her dorm room.

“At ABC, I remember there would be five minutes to air and Sam Donaldson would be scrambling with his notes. Charlie [Gibson] was on Capitol Hill then and David Brinkley was on Sundays,” she recalled. “I ended up being an associate Washington producer, or ‘booker #2’ as they call it, for ‘Good Morning America.’”

Later, her broadcast career included stints with MSNBC and CNN, where she assisted in launching two new programs: “Paula Zahn Now” and “Anderson Cooper 360°.” Ispahani also served as the managing editor for the Voice of America’s Urdu TV show “Beyond the Headlines.” In print, she was the assistant editor for the Pakistan Herald magazine and editor of Zameen, a magazine for Pakistanis living abroad.

“I was always behind the scenes before,” Ispahani explained as we sipped tea in the couple’s Kalorama living room, during her recent visit to Washington from parliament headquarters in Islamabad. “I knew I had an accent and I never wanted to be on the air. I had confidence in my work and with my colleagues but I was incredibly and intensely shy otherwise. As the middle child, I’d be the one to write the speech but not be the one to give the speech,” she recalled. “Now to think I speak for the poorest of the poor … moving bills and agitating for certain legislation on the floor [of parliament].”

Ispahani is not only a female member of the Pakistani National Assembly, she is a spokeswoman for her party leadership and regularly speaks out as an op-ed contributor to Karachi’s The News, the second largest English-language newspaper in the country.

She credits her husband, President Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto with getting her involved in politics. At Bhutto’s urging in 2006, Ispahani joined the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and began working in the media relations department under the party’s chair, Bhutto herself.

Two years later, again with Bhutto’s support, Ispahani ran and won a PPP seat in the National Assembly, representing the women of Sindh province. She is currently a member of the standing committees on foreign affairs, information and broadcasting, and youth affairs.

With all that the two women had been through together, Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007 was a shock for Ispahani — as well as her husband, Husain Haqqani, who had been a longtime colleague of the two-time prime minister. In fact, just days before her assassination, Bhutto had completed the manuscript of her autobiography, “Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West,” and e-mailed it to Haqqani, who’d campaigned for Bhutto in the early 1990s.

“When Benazir died, we called each other immediately, both crying. We decided that now we are committed to her husband and her children and completing her vision for Pakistan,” Ispahani said, referring to President Zardari, Bhutto’s widow.

“On a personal level, she was one of the most caring people, besides being a great leader who got people to think bigger than themselves. Benazir lives in our hearts and our minds,” Ispahani said. “We have not had anyone like her before.”

Fortunately Ispahani still has her politically savvy husband to lean on. “My husband is incredibly supportive of me,” she told The Washington Diplomat, which profiled Haqqani on the cover of its October 2008 issue. “And this is so important considering that we come from a part of the world where women don’t usually leave home and go into politics,” she added. “It is often just me and a room full of men, often tribal leaders. We meet in all kinds of places — not just the capital but tiny villages.

“My husband changed my life,” she continued. “He has had such faith in me from the beginning and felt that I could do it. I am still completely devoted to him and our marriage.”

Ispahani and her husband were both journalists before they married — the second marriage for each of them. Ispahani and her husband call their courtship and marriage “a romance without dates” because the two never actually dated each other.

“I had known of him for 20 years, when he was a journalist and a politician. We were both married and knew people in common. We met again after we were both divorced. He was very persistent. He called me often, texted me, kept inviting me to lunch, and even read poetry to me on the phone. When he called, we’d talk about politics and journalism nonstop and I would forget that he was pursuing me. At the time, I was reeling from an unpleasant divorce and really hadn’t dated,” Ispahani explained.

“I finally agreed to dinner but the night before our dinner date, I had several calls from his mobile phone. Each time I picked it up, no one was there. I was really irritated. The next day I tried to call him but I couldn’t get an answer.

“It never occurred to me that something might be wrong,” she said. “I knew he was a Pakistani with an active political life.”

The next day though, she learned the surprising truth of what had happened to Haqqani, a prominent journalist and political player. “He had been kidnapped outside Islamabad and was calling my number over and over again to signal that something was wrong,” Ispahani said.

Fortunately, he also managed to get through to another friend by phone, who in turn made some calls and soon the news of Haqqani’s kidnapping was out.

When Haqqani failed to show up for dinner, Ispahani complained to her mother that he hadn’t called her. “My mother just looked at me and handed me the front page of the newspaper. It had the story of his kidnapping,” she recalled. “It turns out the prime minister at the time was furious at my husband and revengeful because my husband had left his government. That was May 1999.”

The prime minister at the time was Nawaz Sharif, who had served two nonconsecutive terms before being toppled in a military coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. In the often convoluted and repetitive world of Pakistani politics, Sharif was deposed, convicted of corruption and exiled under Musharraf only to return a few years later, running in the most recent election after Bhutto’s assassination and Musharraf’s own ouster. Following that election, Sharif tentatively joined forces with President Zardari of the PPP, but soon split with the coalition government over the issue of reinstating banned judges.

In the late 1990s, Haqqani had served as an advisor to Sharif, but he eventually became a critical columnist of the prime minister and opposition activist associated with Bhutto’s party, especially during the end of Sharif’s tenure when he began trying to impose Islamic law in parts of the country. Haqqani told us that Sharif was never formally associated with the incident and no one was convicted in the case, although members of Sharif’s civilian intelligence service were identified as having been responsible for the kidnapping, which Haqqani said lasted about a week.

“He had been taken to a safe house, tortured, beaten and kept in solitary confinement. Once the news got out, his kidnappers had to produce him in court. They couldn’t kill him,” Ispahani explained. “I didn’t understand the tough ways of Pakistani politics at the time.”

Haqqani remained mired in legal limbo in a government rest house for three months after the incident. “He grabbed my attention,” Ispahani said, “but I couldn’t see or talk to him — yet I had this big emotional connection. But when it came down to black and white, what romance did I have?

“At that time, I was living with my mother in Karachi. My divorce had been so traumatic. I decided I needed to get on with my life. I came back to New York and got a job with ABC News and lived on the Upper East Side.”

Then one evening three months after Haqqani’s capture, Ispahani got a fateful phone call. “I picked up the phone and heard his voice saying, ‘This is my first call. I have just been released. I’m a man who has always gone after what I wanted. Here are all my numbers so you can call me if you want. But I understand that sometimes you want to will things to happen but they just don’t,’” Ispahani recounted.

“I called him back and we were married on March 12, 2000, eight months later. That’s why I say it is a romance without dates.”

For now though, because Ispahani is a parliament member, it is a romance without living together most of the time. When the National Assembly is in session in Islamabad, she lives in the Parliament’s Lodges, reserved for those members who are away from home.

And often, when the two try to plan a brief getaway together, their plans go astray. This past Thanksgiving, for instance, they both flew to London — a halfway point between Washington and Islamabad — to spend the precious holiday weekend together. But the ambassador ended up spending almost all of his time in television studios answering questions about Pakistan’s connection to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

When Ispahani is in Washington — around two to three weeks every two months or so — she likes to catch up with her old ABC friends, try to meet the other Muslim diplomatic wives, and of course savor a simple night out with her husband. “We love Vietnamese food and don’t have it in Pakistan. There, everyone’s favorite is Chinese,” Ispahani said, noting that she and her husband enjoy escaping to a casual dinner at Bangkok Joe’s or Saigon Café, or seeing a movie in Georgetown.

Despite the separation, Ispahani is close to Haqqani’s two children from his first marriage whom she met when they were 8 and 11. Today, 18-year-old Hammad is a Boston high school senior and 20-year-old Huda is a film student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

But she admitted that the long distances apart take their toll on what is already a busy marriage. “For the last 15 months, my husband and I have been more apart than we have been together…. It is very tough,” she said, adding that they talk on the phone at length in the mornings and evenings and send each other multiple e-mails and text messages daily. “Often we discover we are thinking of each other and are about to dial at the same time.”

During one of their few moments together, Ambassador Haqqani joined us for our weekend interview to talk about his wife.

“Farahnaz is a very special woman. She is passionate in everything she does … whether it’s taking care of her stepchildren, politics or the people of Pakistan. Here’s an educated woman with the understanding of politics and a family name in politics. [As a newswoman], she was obsessed with covering the story…. I thought she might be too straightforward for politics, but she learned from Benazir Bhutto,” he said.

“In my job, she is one of the biggest driving forces. Her faith in Pakistan, the faith that we share together, strengthens my own faith,” the ambassador continued. “This is a special moment in Pakistan’s history: The question is whether we can bring back Pakistan to the original direction it was meant to take — that of a moderate, democratic Muslim state. Being temporarily apart is the price we pay to secure that future. It is a humble contribution, a little sacrifice.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014