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,
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, I say:
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 society.
It is this tradition of Islam that has empowered me, has
strengthened me, has emboldened me.
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
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 role
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 are girls.
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 and directly.
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
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 neutrality.
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 free society.
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
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 liberty.
Justice is economic independence.
Justice is social equality.
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 free….
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.