As the first woman ever
elected to head an Islamic nation, I feel a special
responsibility about issues that relate to women. In
addressing the new exigencies of the new century, we must
translate dynamic religion into a living reality. We must
live by the true spirit of Islam, not only by its rituals.
And for those of you who may be ignorant of Islam, cast
aside your preconceptions about the role of women in our
Contrary to what many of you
may have come to believe, Islam embraces a rich variety of
political, social and cultural traditions. The fundamental
ethos of Islam is tolerance, dialogue, and democracy.
Just as in Christianity and
Judaism, we must always be on guard for those who will
exploit and manipulate the Holy Book for their own narrow
political ends, who will distort the essence of pluralism
and tolerance for their own extremist agendas.
To those who claim to speak
for Islam but who would deny to women our place in society,
The ethos of Islam is
equality, equality between the sexes. There is no religion
on earth that, in its writing and teachings, is more
respectful of the role of women in society than Islam.
My presence here, as the
elected woman prime minister of a great Muslim country, is
testament to the commitment of Islam to the role of women in
It is this tradition of Islam
that has empowered me, has strengthened me, has emboldened
It was this heritage that
sustained me during the most difficult points in my life,
for Islam forbids injustice; injustice against people,
against nations, against women.
It denounces inequality as
the gravest form of injustice.
It enjoins its followers to
combat oppression and tyranny.
It enshrines piety as the
sole criteria for judging humankind.
It shuns race, colour, and
gender as a basis of distinction amongst fellowmen.
When the human spirit was
immersed in the darkness of the Middle Ages, Islam
proclaimed equality between men and women. When women were
viewed as inferior members of the human family, Islam gave
them respect and dignity.
When women were treated as
chattels, the Prophet of Islam (Peace Be Upon Him)
accepted them as equal partners.
Islam codified the rights of
women. The Koran elected their status to that of men.
It guaranteed their civic, economic, and political rights.
It recognised their participative role in nation building.
Sadly, the Islamic tenets
regarding women were soon discarded. In Islamic society, as
in other parts of the world, their rights were denied. Women
were maltreated, discriminated against, and subjected to
violence and oppression, their dignity injured and their
Women became the victims of a
culture of exclusion and male dominance. Today more women
than men suffer from poverty, deprivation, and
discrimination. Half a billion women are illiterate. Seventy
percent of the children who are denied elementary education
The plight of women in the
developing countries is unspeakable. Hunger, disease, and
unremitting toil is their fate. Weak economic growth and
inadequate social support systems affect them most seriously
They are the primary victims
of structural adjustment processes which necessitate reduced
state funding for health, education, medical care, and
nutrition. Curtailed resource flows to these vital areas
impact most severely on the vulnerable groups, particularly
women and children.
This, Madam Chairperson, is
not acceptable. It offends my religion. It offends my sense
of justice and equity. Above all, it offends common sense.
That is why Pakistan, the
women of Pakistan, and I personally have been fully engaged
in recent international efforts to uphold women’s rights. The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights enjoins the
elimination of discrimination against women.
The Nairobi Forward
Looking Strategies provide a solid framework for
advancing women’s rights around the world. But the goal of
equality, development, and peace still eludes us.
Sporadic efforts in this
direction have failed. We are satisfied that the Beijing
Platform of Action encompasses a comprehensive approach
toward the empowerment of women. This is the right approach
and should be fully supported.
Women cannot be expected to
struggle alone against the forces of discrimination and
exploitation. I recall the words of Dante, who reminded us
that "The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those
who remain neutral in times of moral crisis."
Today in this world, in the
fight for the liberation of women, there can be no
My spirit carries many a scar
of a long and lonely battle against dictatorship and
tyranny. I witnessed, at a young age, the overthrow of
democracy, the assassination of an elected prime minister,
and a systematic assault against the very foundations of a
But our faith in democracy
was not broken. The great Pakistani poet and philosopher Dr.
Allama Iqbal says, "Tyranny cannot endure
forever." It did not. The will of our people prevailed
against the forces of dictatorship
But, my dear sisters, we have
learned that democracy alone is not enough.
Freedom of choice alone does
not guarantee justice.
Equal rights are not defined
only by political values.
Social justice is a triad of
freedom, an equation of liberty:
Justice is political
Justice is economic
Justice is social
Delegated, sisters, the child
who is starving has no human rights.
The girl who is illiterate
has no future.
The woman who cannot plan her
life, plan her family, plan a career, is fundamentally not
I am determined to change the
plight of women in my country. More than sixty million of
our women are largely sidelined.
It is a personal tragedy for
them. It is a national catastrophe for my nation. I am
determined to harness their potential to the gigantic task
of nation building….
I dream of a Pakistan in
which women contribute to their full potential. I am
conscious of the struggle that lies ahead. But, with your
help, we shall persevere. Allah willing, we shall succeed.
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