Last month when I attended a reception at the German Consulate General, Karachi, I couldn’t help noticing their very active Deputy Head of Mission Birgit Nicole Kuhlmann. There was something about her that intrigued me to know more about her. She was graciously meeting everyone and was gladly taking selfies with them. Her informal attitude encouraged me to approach her. I showed my interest in interviewing her for our magazine and she happily agreed to it; and said that she would get back to me. It was one pleasant afternoon after which I returned back to my daily grind.
Having experienced connecting with people with high profile jobs and busy schedules, I had little hope of getting a call from her. But to my surprise, she called me only after three days. I was really impressed by her level of professionalism. ‘There is a reason why these nations have progressed, wish we could learn a thing or two from them,’ I murmured in my mind. We set the date and time and I made sure to reach exactly at 11am at the German Consulate General. The staff was courteous and thank God there was no strict scrutiny and I was let in after a routine protocol exercise.
Casually dressed and devoid of any makeup, Brigit was waiting for me in her tastefully-done office. After we exchanged greetings, we started off with her interview. “I have been in the Foreign Service for 30 years now. I was posted in a number of countries over the years including Libya, Jordan, India and China. I was also posted in Berlin (headquarters) for a couple of times. And I still find this job so exciting,” says Birgit who has a degree in Administration. “Well, there are certain skills that are important for this field; you have to have basic education preferably in legal affairs, public affairs, administration, economics, and political affairs.
You have to have great inter-personal skills. If you a have flair for speaking different languages, it gives you an edge. I learnt Arabic and English as I grew up partially in Germany and partially in Saudi Arabia. In Germany, English is taught as one of the major languages. I got my college education in Germany,” adds Birgit. As a Deputy Head of Mission, Birgit’s responsibilities include a myriad of work such as supporting the Consulate in all affairs especially social and developing affairs; taking care of all the matters when the Consul General is not around besides managing the administrative affairs of the Consulate General. “We are doing a lot of development projects in Sindh and Balochistan and we also support local initiatives. For instance, we support the great initiative by the Friends of Burns Centre (FBC) and we have recently provided them financial assistance for buying medical equipment. Burns Centre is the only public sector facility of its kind in Sindh and Balochistan, offering teaching and training services, along with treatment to burn patients. In a global survey, The World Giving Index ranked Germany at 20 out of 140 among the most charitable nations in the world,” informs Birgit who joined Karachi office in 2018.
Though Birgit has been posted in many countries but she particularly likes the Asian and Arabian world. “It’s my first visit to Pakistan and I am really liking it. Everything in this country is so diverse. Since I have been posted in India and Central Asia and Arabian countries, I can draw comparisons between them and Pakistan especially with regard to culture. I like to discover the mentality of local people. I like to know more about issues related to female matters in Pakistan. And during my tenure, I would like to interact with people and to contribute in whatever way I can for the general betterment of women in Pakistani society,” expresses Birgit.
She believes that women can make a difference in diplomacy as they are by nature empathic, peaceful and harmonic. “Women diplomats generally play their part very efficiently. They tend to avoid conflicts and if there is a conflict like situation they try to resolve it amicably,” she elucidates.
For Birgit, representing her country as a Deputy Head of Mission is very fulfilling. “We all at the Consulate are representing our country in one way or other. This is the first time that I am in this kind of position. It is a very responsible position as people look at you and ask you questions and you have to satisfy them with suitable answers. It’s quite challenging but interesting also,” she states.
According to Birgit, it is very important to have a talent for languages if one wants to pursue a diplomatic career. “Language is the key opener to culture. It’s a big help to understand different cultures. First it makes communication much easier, secondly you understand better if you know the language of the local people. And it also helps you to understand why people behave in a certain manner in a different culture. For instance, my native language is German and yours is Urdu but since we both know English we are communicating on one-on-one level without a translator. So, the more languages you know, the better it is,” she expresses.
Talking about the perks and challenges of being attached to the German Foreign Office Birgit exclaims, “It gives you a lot of exposure to the outside world. You can travel a lot. You meet so many different people from various cultures and you get to learn from them. On the flip side, you are posted in a new country every three to four years where a new set of challenges await you. You keep working on improving your skills. This professional career is challenging for women because they have to cooperate well in their professional and family life. And because of constant shifting from one place to another, you sometimes lose track of your own roots which is demanding.”
Supporting women’s professionalism, Birgit strongly recommends that women who are qualified and competent should get the same opportunities as men. “There are still so many areas where women are not treated fairly. It’s all over the world. I think women in power can promote women’s rights as they are in an advantageous position, however, I believe that everybody can promote women’s rights. We should not make it gender based. Even men can be the best promoters of women’s rights,” she stresses.
With that comes to my mind, how do German men treat their women? “Well, there is equality. Women have the liberty to live their life the way they want. German men are cooperating with women. But on the other hand life can be tough for German women. It’s not easy for them to work, manage their homes, husbands and kids at the same time. Usually domestic help is not available or is very expensive. You see there are pros and corns of living in a balanced society too.”
So, what inspires her most about Pakistani women? Birgit smiles and says, “Well, I am still in the process to find it out. What is interesting about Pakistani women is their diversity; I find the female society in Pakistan very diverse. From high profile business women to normal housewives; from highly educated skilled women to unskilled women, from very rich women to very poor women, from modern women to pardah-clad women, you get to see a huge range of female actors in this country. This is something I really admire.”
However, she says that German people have not enough idea about Pakistani female society yet and what they know is not the complete picture. “There is a thinking that Pakistani women in general are being oppressed, which after my view is not the case. Actually there is not enough information about the interesting diversity of female society in Pakistan communicated to the outside world, also by the media,” she observes.
What does a typical day look like for her? “I am in the office by 7:30 am, check my emails, do the routine administrative work, attend visitors who come to see us and want to know about our projects. I take a short lunch break then in afternoon we give briefing report of our work to our headquarters in Berlin. In a nutshell, I make sure that everything works smoothly at the Consulate. In the evenings, I normally socialise as I get invited to formal functions and parties which I need to attend. It’s also part of my job. And yes, I also organise events at the Consulate General,” tells Birgit.
One wonders how this amazing woman keeps balance between her professional life and family life. “I have been in this job since 30 years so am kind of used to this lifestyle. I don’t feel home sick. Thanks to the technology and social media, it helps a lot to stabilise communication. E-mail is beautiful, WhatsApp is beautiful. In one minute you can be connected to your family and friends who are thousands of miles away from you physically. The world has become a global village now. I forgot actually how it was before,” she grins.
Birgit loves reading books and in her spare time she reads books on her iPad. “I download books on my iPad. I do miss the feel of the paper but then when you move from one place to another it’s very difficult to take all your books along. Mobility of books is one of the factors that drawn me towards reading books on iPad,” she explains.
On this note, we came to the end of our enjoyable interview. I found Birgit as an honest, intelligent, outspoken and peace loving person; who is committed to her work and who sincerely wants this world to become a better place. Being content with her job, she does not have ambitious plans for herself. “In the future, I would like to continue with my work. After my assignment in Pakistan, I would like to be posted again in other Arabian or Asian countries. I am eager to explore this part of the world. At the moment, I am enjoying my stay in Karachi. I love everything about this cosmopolitan city - the food, the weather, lifestyle and above all meeting and knowing fabulous women of this region!”
*Erum Noor Muzaffar is the editor of You! magazine. She can be contacted at [email protected]