HERITAGE, IDENTITY, AND HOPE| FOUZIA YOUNIS ON THE ART OF DIPLOMACY, BUILDING BRIDGES & BREAKING BARRIERS
In a world where diplomacy and global relations are becoming increasingly vital, Fouzia Younis stands out as a trailblazer. With grace and courage, she has charted a remarkable path, as a British diplomat of South Asian heritage serving with distinction in some of the world's most challenging environments.
British diplomat Fouzia Younis made history as the first British Muslim woman to be appointed head of a UK diplomatic post. She served as Director of Communications at the British High Commission in Pakistan and now has been appointed as His Majesty's British Consul General to Toronto, Canada.
In this interview, Younis shares her experiences and insights on leadership, diversity, and making a difference. She speaks about her journey as a global woman of Pakistani heritage and how she celebrates her femininity in the workplace. With a passion for empowering girls, Fouzia shares her vision for a better world and the role that education and workforce participation play in achieving it. Join us for this inspiring conversation and learn from the journey of an extraordinary woman.
Pleasure to have you with us Fouzia; you look fabulous. How do these styles represent you?
First of all I'd like to say a big thank you to Ozzy Shah for styling this shoot at the iconic venue that represents both the Mughal period and also the British history here as well. What these styles represent is who I am today - they showcase my family's heritage, that came from British India which is now of course Pakistan and India, part of the Commonwealth.
Being born in the UK and raised there, I am showing through these styles what a modern woman looks like of Pakistani/South Asian heritage who's British but also a global woman
I love the femininity in the designs as well showcasing that we're women and we should be celebrating that.
You noted that the theme of these styles is ‘Commonwealth Connections’. This is a big year for the Commonwealth with the coronation of King Charles III. Can you tell us a bit about what is happening and why this matters to Pakistanis?
2022 was a sad year for us with the passing of Majesty The Queen and now in 2023 we're looking forward to the Coronation of King Charles III who's got a strong link to Pakistan and this region - he visited Pakistan back in 2006 as Prince of Wales and with the Duchess of Cornwall and they had such a great journey as they travelled all across Pakistan. So,
for me this year is not just about the King's coronation but also celebrating his passion for this region, for young people and bringing out their true potential.
That's why this year, particularly, is important to us.
This year we're celebrating the coronation of King Charles III who's not only becoming the Head of State of the UK but the Head of Commonwealth as well, of which Pakistan is a voluntary member along with 56 other states. There's two and a half billion people across this region - of course the commonwealth plays a key role in improving trade links between these states, furthering democracy and rule of law, while pairing young people and working on improving gender equality. So the offer to Pakistan is a strong one.
Whilst looking the part is clearly a requisite for any diplomat – there must also clearly be substance beneath the style. Can you tell us a bit about your journey in diplomacy so far and your experiences as a woman in this field?
I joined the Foreign Service about 20 years ago and I've served in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, just finished my serving in Pakistan - I've also worked on issues of Middle-East and corporate issues.
I actually never thought I'd become a diplomat as it wasn't a career my family traditionally would think of me doing. Growing up as the daughter of migrants, I faced prejudice, sexism, racism and Islamophobia. I still do. 6 months before my mum sadly died, she was the victim of a racist attack at a local supermarket.
I still walk into rooms and am the only woman of colour in leadership.
. I am also fortunate to have had parents who have stood up for me at every stage - dropping me off at coach stations in the middle of the night, walking me home from bus stops, being proud of me representing my country - the UK - overseas. I share my experiences because that's the only way that then problems are seen and solutions found.
I applied to join the Foreign Service and did my internship at the Foreign Office - I went to India for two months which was absolutely amazing and after my return I did my exam and joined the Foreign Service. I can honestly say that in the last 20 years of my career in diplomacy, no day has been the same.
It's a privilege and a big honour to serve my country but also I am supremely humbled by the work we do as I see how we make a difference in people's lives.
Beyond all the glamour, it's actually not that easy because you're constantly away from your family, packing your bags and making new friends again, leaving the old world behind which is hard. Being a woman with this kind of life is even more difficult while trying to balance your personal/family life and a career.
It’s great to see women as change-makers and in positions of authority like yourself, as a British diplomat here in Pakistan, what according to you is the recipe to success for a woman?
It's important to be authentic and be true to who you are. It's not about being better than anyone else but delivering your best. You're only competing with yourself, not others.
When I look at leaders like Jacina Ardern,
I think that holding on to your empathy, kindness and your values is very important because the very best women leaders I have seen do that very effectively. They don't try to replicate anyone else but they just celebrate who they are.
Tell us a bit about your ambitions as a child and how you look at where you are in life today. If not a diplomat, what other profession would have you chosen for yourself?
Growing up watching movies and reading entertainment, Bollywood magazines, I genuinely thought I'd most likely have a career in the entertainment world, perhaps as an entertainment journalist. (Laughs)
As I was growing up the career choices for women were quite limited but I am very thankful to my parents who encouraged and supported me into becoming what I am today.
If I didn't have a career as a diplomat, I probably would have been in Mumbai, fulfilling my dream as a child of becoming an entertainment journalist. Growing up I loved ice cream so I actually thought I'd become a pretty good ice cream van lady (smiles).
How do you look at young professional women today? What would be a piece of advice from you to girls opting to become independent and strong women?
Just go for it! If you don't see it then be it and that's our slogan. Up until 40 years ago if you were a woman in the Foreign Service and you got married, you had to resign so if the generation before me didn't decide to break the stereotype and thought that Foreign Diplomacy isn't for them then I wouldn't be where I am today. So
whatever field you're in whether it's journalism, politics, setting up your own business and you don't see a woman reaching the heights of success, you become that woman and change that yourself.
You become that change and show other women that representation for generations after you.
My advice for young girls and women would be to just do it and be change makers.
We can see from your social media accounts that you are a big advocate for girls’ education. What has the UK been doing on this in Pakistan?
This year the UK is celebrating a decade of learning in Pakistan, we're marking 10 years of educational development systems - between 2011-2022 we've supported at least 15 and a half million children to get a better education, of which about 8 million were girls. We've also spent £700 million on improving education in Pakistan and we've got more programs to come. This is something I am really passionate about - if you educate a girl, you educate a generation. No nation can achieve its full potential if it leaves behind 50 percent of the population. Another thing
I am really passionate about is not just getting girls educated but also getting them into the workplace
as very often we see that very talented girls, educated and full of potential can't get work due to other societal expectations such as getting married or facing other workplace challenges. So it's very important to get girls to have education and also eventually be financially independent.
How vital a role do expats play in the development landscape of a country? Is there more that can be done?
Pakistan has got such a wide and rich diaspora and the UK holds one of the largest Pakistani diasporas. Remittances from the UK last year totalled £4.3 billion and in particular last year I saw how well the British-Pakistani community came together to support the flood relief affectees. Through public appeals, the UK government generated £36 million and another £40 million was donated through the UK's Disasters Emergency Committee.
It's not just about the money but also about skill sharing as well - it's great to see someone like Ozzy who's an expat and styled me for this shoot. It's amazing to showcase an infused culture between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. You see so many doctors and other professionals coming and inquiring about how they can give back to their community which is great to witness.
Last year we marked 75 years of Pakistan’s Independence. What do you think of the general state of UK-Pakistan relations? What does the future hold?
The relationship between Pakistan and the UK is a very strong one. Last year was a big high for us as we saw the England Cricket team visit Pakistan after 17 years and overall the response showed just how much both nations missed this. In addition to that we also had a big British Council season as we celebrated culture and arts between the countries. We had Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations and also had the Commonwealth games being hosted in my hometown Birmingham where we saw the largest contingent of Pakistani female sports/ athletes.
This year I hope that these ties between Pakistan and the UK go from strength to strength
with the coronation coming up and celebratory Commonwealth games and exciting Ministerial visits. I'd love to see more business links to grow between the two countries.
INTERVIEW: SUNDUS UNSAR RAJA
STYLING: OZZY SHAH
PHOTOGRAPHY: YRATTA MEDIA
HAIR & MAKEUP: TONI AND GUY LAHORE
COORDINATION: BRITISH HIGH COMMISSION
BTS: TAHIR CHAUDHARY