Sayeeda Warsi: Speech at the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University

Speaking at the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University, July 20th 2010 Sayeeda Warsi said;

I’ve had a fantastic few days in Pakistan. Everywhere I’ve been, people have given me an amazingly warm welcome. And I want to say a special thank you to the Ministry for Women’s Development and to Fatima Jinnah University for hosting me this evening and for giving me a chance to talk some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the last few days.

As I’ve travelled round, people keep saying how amazing it is that I’m the first Muslim woman in the British Cabinet. They say it’s exceptional, remarkable, an unique achievement – and that’s made me think .

Of course, it is great that a woman, a Muslim, whose family originated in Pakistan can get into the British Cabinet. And ladies and gentlemen, of course I’m incredibly proud – and also actually quite humbled.

Far more extraordinary is the life of Fatima Jinnah.

She didn’t think that being a Muslim woman barred her from politics. In fact, she had the opposite view.

It was because she was a woman, and because she was a Muslim that she decided to get involved in politics in the 1940s.

She defined the whole purpose of Pakistan in this way.

“The story of the Pakistan movement is a story of the ideals of equality, fraternity and social and economic justice struggling against the forces of domination, exploitation, intolerance and tyranny”.

This is what she said – and that is how she lived her life.

There are many others in that same tradition. Look around, and you see a number of them here today.
And in both our countries, Muslim women keep climbing higher and achieving greater things.

Dr FahmidaMirza is the first female Parliamentary speaker of any Muslim country.

Dr. MaleehaLodhi has risen to the top of two professions, journalism and politics.

Young women like Fatima Bhutto now write bestselling books and appear on our television screens.

And all the members of our distinguished panel are leading examples of their respective fields.

Everywhere you look, you see signs of women leaders breaking through. But the fact remains that until a Muslim woman can be appointed to a British Cabinet without people saying it’s exceptional, then we know we’ve still got a lot way to go.

Women in Society
Everyone here knows why equality matters.

A big part of it is simply about fairness. I live in a country where there are a smaller proportion of women in my Parliament than in the Parliaments of any of the following countries: Rwanda, Belarus, Cuba, Angola or Burundi.

In fact until a few weeks ago, there wasa higher proportion of women in Pakistan’s National Assembly than in the House of Commons.

That is not fair, and it is certainly not progressive, and it’s a sign of how bad things still are when it comes to gender inequality.

But fairness is just the start of it.

This is also about effectiveness. And until we get more women into our Parliaments, intoour Governments, and into the big jobs right across our countries, our politics will not be half what they could be and our countries will not be half what they could be either.

I think about this in a very down to earth way.

It’s not just that women bring something else to the table – although we all know that it is true. Two years ago, when I came here with David Cameron, we had a meeting with some of the women in Parliament at that time.

As you’d expect, it was a lively encounter – so lively, in fact, that at the end of the meeting David Cameron turned to me and said, “gosh its good that I only have one of your in my Cabinet…”.

Nor is it that I think that men can’t represent women and women can’t represent men. Of course that’s not the case. But just think about it for a second.

Ask ten men and ten women separately what they see as priorities and what they see as the important issues facing families, to respond to different events and challenges, to set out how politics should work, and you will get some very different answers from those two groups.

Add to that the issues that do disproportionately affect women – health care, child care, equality in the workplace – and you see why this is about effectiveness as well as fairness.

The fact is that a badly unrepresentative parliament will be ineffective. End of story.

And this doesn’t just apply to politics. Look at any business, any industry, any public institution, and the same thing is obvious. Everyone knows you can’t clap with one hand.

But take almost any organisation and you see that very often they are trying to clap with one hand.

The largest British companies with hardly any women on the board.

Civil institutions run almost entirely by men.

Organisations where women are shut out or kept down.

We’ve got to get more women into positions of real authority across our societies and give them more chances to apply their skills.

Now some of you might say it’s too difficult, there are too many vested interests, too many barriers, too many powerful forces standing in our way. Well frankly, that didn’t stop Fatima Jinnah when she got involved in the Pakistan movement. That didn’t stop her when she decided to run for President of this country. So why should it stop you? Others say, it’s the media, they are always more interested in our dupatta and our shalwarkameez ourchadar than in our policies. Well of course, we need responsible reporting and I say it’s up to us to change the media too. Some people instead will say that the key thing is role models. We need more successful Muslim women professionals to go out and encourage and persuade people by their example – and on that point, I would totally agree.

But I think that there’s something else which is even more important. It’s about giving women the skills, the knowledge, the confidence they need to stand up for themselves. We need to give women the power to sweep away all those cultural stigmas and chauvinistic laws which suffocate them. And for me, doing that all boils down to one thing: education. We need to make sure that every woman has access to the best possible training and skills.

Islam and Women
But before I talk about education, I want to get one thing straight. I’m no religious authority and I don’t want to spark a prolonged theological debate. But there’s no doubt in my mind that if there’s one thing the Glorious Koran is clear on, it’s that men and women should be educated equally.

Prophet MuhammadPBUH said : “Education is obligatory on both Muslim men and women, even if they have to go to China to seek it”. You can’t ask for much more clarity than that.

Take Khadijah and Aishah. What do their stories teach us? That women should be treated as intellectual equals. That women have been important sources of Hadith. Khadijah wasn’t just the companion of Prophet Muhammad PBUH. It was she who proposed to the Prophet. She was a businesswoman who controlled her own fortune. And she was the Prophet’s solace and source of strength. As for Aishah, we all know about theBattle of the Camel. But we should also remember that she was a scholar, skilled in medicine.

And there’s another point I would make. To be true followers of Islam, we must also be historians. To get to the true meaning of our religion, we must consider the context in which our faith was formed. Because when you think what the Koran says about women, and when you put that alongside the almost total absence of equality across the world in the 7th century, then you see very quickly that Islam’s message was and is one of radical emancipation and equality.

We should not let that message be hijacked.

Benazir Bhutto made this same point in an article she wrote fifteen years ago. “In an age when no country, no system, no community gave women any rights, in a society where the birth of a baby girl was regarded as a curse, and where women were considered chattel, Islam treated women as individuals.

The Koran says“Believers, men and women are mutual friends. They enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil”.

Long ago Islam gave women rights that modern nations have conceded grudgingly and only under pressure.”

It Is for these reasons that I have always thought of Islam as a profoundly egalitarian religion. In his farewell speech, Prophet Muhammad PBUH said that women are men’s “partners and committed helpers”. They should indeed be partners and so there should be no barriers to women, in education or in politics. And that leads me to the main point I want to make today.

Britain and Pakistan
The opportunities given to us by our faith should not be denied by our culture.

Let me repeat: the opportunities given to us by our faith should not be denied by our culture.

Too often warped, one-sided chauvinistic cultures are crowding out Islam’s promised equality.

Both here and in Britain cultural stigmas, irrational assumptions, and a history of male monopoly are getting in the way of the real, true Muslim message about equality. Both our countries have to deal with this problem. In some ways, Britain is doing better; in other ways, Pakistan is leading the way. In all cases, there are things we need to learn from each other. Let me give you two simple examples of what I mean.

Where I live in Yorkshire, some Muslim men are still arguing about whether women should be allowed to go to university. But here I am today in a Muslim country, standing in a university devoted specifically to women’s education, in a country where almost half of all students in higher education are women, and whose Air Force includes a number of female fighter pilots – including A cadet, SairaAmin, who has won the Sword of Honour.

My second example is about my own story. Five years ago, I stood for election in my home town of Dewsbury. I love Dewsbury. I was born and raised there. My Dad’s manufacturing company and my legal practice are based on the high street. But none of that mattered much when it came to the election. I visited some streets where I knew my Party was popular, only to be told in no uncertain terms to depart quickly. And then when I visited some traditional Muslim communities, I was shunned because I was a woman. Too brown for some, too female for others – not surprisingly, I did not win.

At some point during the election, a group of elders came to see my father.

They told him it was shameful that his daughter was putting herself forward for election. It wasn’t the first time they had been to see him.

In 1976, the elders visited my father to say that it was shameful he was letting his wife learn to drive.

In 1985, they knocked on the door to say that it was shameful he was letting his daughter go to university.

Now in 2005, they were back once again saying that a daughter was bring fresh shame on the family. He gave them the same reply he’d given each previous time: no, it wasn’t shameful. In fact, he thought it was a pretty good thing. He said he wanted his daughter to go into politics. To stand up for what she believed in. We need far more fathers, far more husbands, far more brothers and sons who stand up and say the same thing. Until more fathers want what their daughters want, we’re not going to get anywhere.

But it’s not just supportive fathers that matter. We need more Muslim mothers to do the same thing, and I’ve been incredibly lucky.

I am the second oldest of five sisters, and when we were young, our mother told us that that while she didn’t go to university, it was our duty to go on her behalf and bring her back five university degrees.

We had no choice in the matter – but she knew that education is the door to opportunity. She knew that it’s education which really unlocks the door to equality. And thank goodness for her, I went.

Women and Education
Now here inPakistan, nowhere near enough girls are being given this opportunity.At university level, fewer than five per cent of Pakistani women are in education. If you consider primary and secondary education, the situation is even more distressing. The average length of time spent in school for a Pakistani girl is just over 6 years. And more than a quarter of all girls aged 10 to 14 have no education at all.

You don’t need me to tell you why this is a problem. It’s not just that as your population grows dramatically, doubling in the next forty years, you are not equipping the economy with the right skills to compete properly. It’s that unless we change all this and smash the cycle of education failure, we are condemning millions of girls and boys to a life of destitution, illiteracy and social immobility.

Just consider the following facts. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later. She also will have two fewer kids. Give her just one extra year in primary school and that means a ten or twenty per cent boost in her earning power later in life.

Now apply that to Pakistan and you see that just extending the average primary school career for every girl by just one year and you’ve helped to tackle your big challenges of demography and economy.

Their earning will add billions of rupees to your economy.

But this is not about money, it’s about social mobility.

It’s about giving every Muslim girl the chance to succeed.

There’s a saying in the Koran that if you educate a girl you educate a family; if you educate a man, you educate an individual.

Well that is pretty insightful stuff when you consider that young women in the developing world who are educated have a 90 per cent chance of ploughing their earnings back into their families, whereas with men it is only 30 per cent.

So the big question is how can we make education in Pakistan better?

And how can we make sure that more women have access to it?

Now DFID – the British government’s development department – has been doing crucial work in this area alongside your own federal government. A big part of that is about providing stipends to help keep girls in education. Last year, DFID helped to keep around 300,000 girls in schools thanks to these stipends. And another key thing is providing textbooks and teachers – last year, 4.3 million textbooks and 4,200 teachers were paid for by the UK.

But let’s be frank, there’s still a lot more to do, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwaand other affected areas. With AusAid, the Australian Government’s overseas aid program, we’ve just reached an agreement to supply more textbooks and stipends in this province.

And by committing £250 million to support education in Pakistan over the coming years, the British government will ensure that it does everything possible to support the Pakistani government’s National Education Plan.

Prime Minister Gilani is absolutely right to make education a priority. But it would be a mistake to make great sweeping predictions too far in the future.

Remember the five year plan in 1956 which promised universal primary school enrolment in five years?

Remember the same promise that was made in 1988?

We’ve got to move one step at a time and make sure that step is properly implemented.

That’s why I’m so pleased that the Prime Minister’s Education Taskforce is being chaired by Sir Michael Barber and Her Excellency the Adviser to the Prime Minister,ShahnazWazir Ali. The Taskforce has already focussed on the crucial important of implementation. As Sir Michael has said, rather than writing reports, this taskforce is actually going to get things done. This is absolutely the right approach – and why the next few years could be very exciting.

But we have also got to accept the limits of what any government can achieve on its own. This is a big country, with big variations within the different provinces. Just to give you an example, if the Minister of Education in Punjab decided to visit every single school in the province, he would have to visit around ten a day and it would take him forty years until he had seen them all. When you think about it like that, you see that to make real inroads into education reform, and to extend education to everyone in every village and every community, we need to harness all the available skills and passion of people across society. And that’s where charities and voluntary organisations come in.

Since 2002, I’ve been involved in a women’s empowerment charity called the SavayraFoundation which supports widows, divorcees, and orphan girls through skills, education and other poverty relief programmes.Over the last seven years, we have set up five skill centres in District Rawalpindi andGujerkhan to help financially destitute women and give them training and professional skills. Each skill centre trains two lots of thirty women each year. That’s 300 annually, and more than 2,000 so far. Of course, by itself this is just a tiny part of the solution. But it is a small step in the right direction.

The point is that if we really are going to give every girl the best possible start in life, then we need everyone to play their part and get involved. It’s going to take a massive, concerted, national effort at every level to make education a universal experience. So we need a sustained outpouring of determination, forward thinking and political will.

This is not just about what happens in politicians’ offices. It’s about what happens in every town, every village, every community. It means saying to teachers who don’t turn up to teach, if you keep doing this you will be sacked and lose your pay. It means saying to businesses, we need your support to make education accessible. And it means saying to parents, if you’re angry at the lack of facilities in your local school, we will give you real power to complain and make change.

And above all, it means a national attitude of not accepting second best. In the hands of every single girl there is so much talent and skill waiting to be unlocked.

It is a tragedy if those hands, because of a lack of education, are compelled to open and forced to beg. Every single child matters, and every child should be given the right education opportunities.

For me, the truly precious thing about education is that it gives you the power to understand who you are. The ability to know your mind and reach your destiny. The skills and confidence to be all you could be. And yes, education also gives you an opening into understanding Islam, and using our true Muslim values to tackle inequality.

As I stand here today, I’m not going to pretend that life as a British Muslim female politician has always been comfortable. Of course, there are times when all these things – being British, Muslim, female and in politics – collide. But education opens the door to resolving all of these things. It allows you to realise your identity. And tonight, the final thought I want to leave you with is personal as much as it is political. It’s the lesson I’ve learned through my life’s education so far.

Keep all the good things that you find in your culture. Strip away all those things that are wrong. Understand your heritage and know where you come from. Adhere to your faith and achieve its true meaning. And in doing all these things, love your family; support your community; and be proud and loyal to your country.

Thank you all so much for listening to me this evening. May Allah give you the strength to succeed. (July 20th 2010)