No neutrality in the fight for justice.

The title for this blog is taken from a line in a speech made by the former Prime Minister of Pakistan – Benazir Bhutto.  Bhutto close up

She delivered this speech at the opening day of the 1995 Beijing UN Women’s conference which marked a significant turning point for the global agenda for gender equality and you can read about it here http://www.unwomen.org/en/how-we-work/intergovernmental-support/world-conferences-on-women.95 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing – and it deserves to be better known. 

The Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action,  was adopted unanimously by 189 countries, is a key platform for women’s empowerment and considered as one of the foundational global policy documents on gender equality. It set strategic objectives and actions for the advancement of women and the achievement of gender equality in 12 critical areas of concern, which still inform Gender mainstreaming

beijinc conference SUDAN delegation

and equality measures for politicians, international development agencies

and women’s rights activists across the globe.

Here is what Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had to say about the situation confronting women globally in the last decade of the twentieth century. Her perspective on social justice, equity, women’s right to access education, the true point of religion, law and economics to empower women to take their place alongside men in an equitable distribution of the world’s goods and resources holds power for today’s world seven years after her death (December 2007 whilst re-contesting elections in Pakistan) and 19 years after she first delivered it.

Benazir Bhutto Speech – Male Domination Of Women

Speech delivered by the Prime Minister of Pakistan
UN World Conference on Women
 Beijing, 4 September 1995

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 religion.

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, 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 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 role denied.

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 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.

Bhutto voting

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 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 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.

Benazir Bhutto 1995 Beijin
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About fordwords

Writer, social entrepreneur, coach, academic, Anglican priest, mother and Human Values commentator. Curious as to how power, gender, sexuality, globalisation, migration, faith, and the 'open knowledge economy' are now playing out in our gendered world - how the domestic collides with the former dictates of business, governance and public space. Reaching out for a world in which all children can mature into adults who enjoy space, well-being, love, inter-dependence and dignity. We are still someway off. These musings hope to shorten the distance between hope and realisation in our lives.
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3 Responses to No neutrality in the fight for justice.

  1. Thanks you for sharing a strong speech from a woman who did nothing but fight for equality!

  2. Hello, Carrie! Mike Morrell asked me to contact you because he really appreciates your blog and thinks you’d be an excellent candidate for his Speakeasy Blogger Network. Do you like to review off-the-beaten path faith, spirituality, and culture books? Speakeasy puts interesting books in your hands at no charge to you. You only get books when you request them, and it’s free to join. Sign up here, if you’d like: http://thespeakeasy.info

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