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International Women’s Day: Throwing a Spotlight on Muslim Women’s Rights


Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of Pakistan in the Security Council, March 7, 2023. He led an all-day forum on March 8, International Women’s Day, on “Women in Islam.” He aimed to counter the general perception that the religion represses women, including in his own country, but data challenge the picture. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari opposes the general perception that Islam represses women while ignoring various negative indices regarding women in his own country. “Islam was the first religion to give rights to women,” he declared in a session on “Women in Islam,” held at the United Nations and led by Zardari as chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Council of Foreign Ministers. “Islam forbids injustice against women.”

The Pakistan event was held during the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, running from March 6 to 17; its theme is using innovation and technology to promote gender equality. Many countries have been adopting the theme in events they are holding during the conference to reflect what is happening in their region or back home. The Pakistan forum occurred on March 8, International Women’s Day, just as a debate on Afghanistan, its neighbor, took place in the Security Council down the hall. In that chamber, diplomats and others aired serious worries about the status of women and girls in the country, as their rights are being slashed by the Taliban-headed government.

Nevertheless, Pakistan aimed to bridge the perception-reality gap on the rights of women in Islam throughout the world. Speaking on the efforts of Pakistan, an Islamic republic, to advance women’s equality, Zardari said that its “digital policy framework” is training girls in computing so they can earn a living some day. “We continue to incentivize women-owned and women-run start-ups in Pakistan’s IT sector,” he said. “Computer labs have been established in girls’ schools through collaboration with the private sector.”

He also said that part of his “political and personal mission” is to address “misconceptions about Islam and advance the cause of women empowerment that was so boldly espoused by my mother as a living example.”

His mother, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, also represented Pakistan at the groundbreaking Beijing women’s conference in 1995, he said. Quoting her, he added: “As the first woman ever elected to head an Islamic nation, I feel a special responsibility towards women’s issues and towards all women. And as a Muslim woman, I feel a special responsibility to counter the propaganda of a handful that Islam gives women a second-class status.” (She was assassinated in 2007.)

Yet a survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked Pakistan the sixth most-dangerous country in the world for women. (Another neighbor, India, ranked No. 1.) The survey also revealed how sexual violence, domestic abuse, acid attacks and honor killings characterize Pakistani society.

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UN Women says that women continue to remain underrepresented in leadership roles in Pakistan and are restricted from jobs in the political/public sphere because of systemic challenges stemming from patriarchy. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), an independent body that organizes and conducts federal elections, it calculates a gender gap of around 12.5 million in the electoral rolls. According to UN Women, at the current rate of progress, gender parity in the national legislature will not be achieved before 2063.

But speaking at the conference, the prime minister said that “the issue of perception that Muslim women are oppressed and discriminated against is misplaced,” adding that it was crucial to distinguish between Islamic principles and law and social practices espoused by some patriarchal societies.

Muslim women have played outstanding roles in all walks of life, including education, business, economics, politics and governance, Zardari said, listing successes. That includes the first woman president of Indonesia, the first prime ministers of Tunisia and Türkiye and the youngest Muslim girl to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai. She was shot in the face by the Taliban in Pakistan while riding in a school bus.

The Pakistan forum drew numerous other speakers, but the spokesperson for the Pakistan mission to the UN said it was not inspired by a proposal voiced by Amina Mohammed, the UN’s deputy secretary-general, in late January, after she and other UN officials traveled to Afghanistan to talk to the Taliban, that the UN and the OIC should hold an international conference in March on women in the Muslim world. (Mohammed spoke at the Pakistan event in a pre-recorded message.) — DAMILOLA BANJO

Other quotes from speakers:

Mohamed Shihab, minister for gender, family and social services, Maldives: “The right to education for every child in the Maldives without discrimination is enshrined within the child rights protection act and the Education Act of 2020.”

Wafa Bani Mustafa, minister of social development, Jordan: Jordan has granted particular importance to refugees, specifically refugee women, by “guaranteeing them a dignified life on the basis of the humanist messages of Islam and the moral values of all Jordanian people.”

Amal Hamad, minister of women’s affairs, Palestine: Education is mandatory for all Palestinian children.

Noura AlKaabi, minister of state, United Arab Emirates: “Extremism distorts Islam as a means of justifying discriminatory practices and misogynistic policies against women and girls. Islamophobia instrumentalizes the status of women in Islam in a cynical effort to vilify and otherize Islam and Muslims.”

What This Major European Body Is Doing for Women

For International Women’s Day, PassBlue interviewed Helga Maria Schmid by email. She leads the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, and was asked about gender equality in her institution. Her three-year term ends in December. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

PassBlue: What are you doing specifically to promote gender equality at OSCE?

Helga Maria Schmid: I firmly believe that as the world’s largest regional security organization, the OSCE must lead by example. Our organization makes an important contribution to strengthening the role of women in peacebuilding, conflict resolution and mediation. This means not only promoting gender equality within the organization but also mainstreaming a gender perspective in all our activities, policy programs and projects as well as promoting gender equality in all our 57 participating States. In my first year as Secretary General, we launched a campaign on recognizing unconscious bias; we developed a gender-coaching program for our directors and a gender responsive leadership program for senior managers. And we are making steady progress to improve the gender balance among OSCE staff at all levels. As a Catalytic Member of the UN’s Women, Peace & Security and Humanitarian Action Compact, the OSCE also pledged specific actions towards supporting cross-regional networks of women mediators and women peacebuilders, and ensuring inclusive and gender responsive peace processes. As the first woman in the role of OSCE Secretary General, I take this pledge very seriously. Women must have a seat at the table. Because women’s leadership in security is a necessity. Women play a significant role in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Since assuming the post of Secretary General, I have devoted significant effort to enhancing the role of women mediators and special representatives in the OSCE area and beyond.

Let me illustrate with an example: In December 2021, I inaugurated the Networking Platform for Women leaders, including Mediators and Peacebuilders, with the objective of supporting women who are active in peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and mediation. As part of the Platform, I launched a Women’s Peace Leadership Program, in which high-level women mediators mentor peacebuilders working to improve their skills and their access. The program includes participants from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Georgia, among others. I am proud to announce, that today, on International Women’s Day 2023, I have launched the youth pillar of this networking platform, to empower young women becoming leaders in their communities and at international level.

PassBlue: Where do you see gaps in gender-equality gains and why do they persist?

Schmid: Despite all efforts, violence against women in all its forms is still a problem across the OSCE region. Women are targeted not only for their political views, but violence is also used as a tactic to prevent current and aspiring women politicians from engaging in politics and decision-making altogether. Women and girls are all too often impacted by gender inequalities driven by crises and conflict. These catastrophes compound women’s vulnerabilities by increasing the risk of abuse, trafficking, and violence, and by upending their lives and stealing their livelihoods. Furthermore, the underrepresentation of women in leadership and decision-making positions still remains a real challenge that needs to be addressed in order to reach effective and sustainable outcomes. Between 1992-2019, only 13% of peace negotiators and 6% of mediators were women. I think that one of the root causes for that relates to perceptions of gender — almost everywhere around the world, men still tend to be more associated with power and leadership than women. Such persisting stereotypes shape how we think of men and women in our society, what roles we find them suitable for and what opportunities they are granted. We need to work to address these long-term barriers to women’s exclusion, including economic empowerment and education. Women’s full participation is not possible without empowering women economically.

The head of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Helga Maria Schmid, Jan. 12, 2023. In an interview with PassBlue, she described her work promoting gender equality in the OSCE, saying it makes an “important contribution to strengthening the role of women in peacebuilding, conflict resolution and mediation.” MICKY KROELL/OSCE

As a woman in such a prestigious post, what do you recommend to other women who want leadership roles?

Schmid: In my career, I had far too many experiences of women not having equal access to the fora where important decisions in security policy were being made. Also, my own experience was that, too often, my voice would go unheeded only to have the same suggestion welcomed later when spoken by a man. Whether due to unconscious bias or outright discrimination, this is a problem. So what can we do? Continue to speak up. Build your network! I strongly believe in women’s networks. And at every opportunity, support other women. In my capacity as OSCE Secretary General, I do my utmost to promote women’s active involvement in all spheres of security. Strengthening women’s leadership is particularly dear to me. Giving visibility to the valuable work of women is essential to ensure that they are seen, heard and empowered. And this is important not only because I believe in gender equality but because it results in better policy outcomes! Negotiations and peace agreements are more effective when women have a say. Women often have better connections to a broader segment of local populations and bring this knowledge into policy discussions.

How is the war in Ukraine hurting gender equality overall in Europe?

Schmid: For more than a year we have seen the devastating impact this war has on civilians. Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced, and many women and young people face the danger of human trafficking, as well as sexual and gender-based violence. We have seen spikes in online searches for explicit content and sexual services from Ukrainian women and girls, and we know this is creating an incentive for traffickers to recruit and exploit these vulnerabilities. Keeping these people safe is a top priority for the OSCE. The OSCE has strengthened and mobilized additional support for women and girls through our WIN project, “Women & Men Innovating & Networking for Gender Equality.” For example, we brought women’s organizations from Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina together, that work directly with survivors of gender-based violence so they can share their first-hand experience and knowledge. Last October, we collaborated with Thomson Reuters to launch the “Be Safe” campaign, which leverages online platforms and social media to educate women on human trafficking risks and provide access to support services. With an estimated turnover of 140 billion euros per year, human trafficking is the third largest crime worldwide in terms of volume. We now estimate that there are 25 to 27 million victims per year. Only a fraction of the cases end up with the prosecution authorities, so there is largely impunity for the perpetrators of human trafficking. This is a sad reality.

• Hard to Find: Women Leaders in Multilateral Institutions

Women are still “vastly underrepresented” in most of the powerful global institutions as the world marks another International Women’s Day. A new report reveals that women have led the top jobs at the largest multilateral institutions only “12% of all the times” their leadership has changed since 1945. The report, published by GWL Voices for Change and Inclusion, an advocacy group of 62 current and former senior women leaders at some of the multilateral institutions, scrutinized the largest ones and the four major development banks. GWL mapped out 33 of the organizations and found that since 1945, they have collectively had a total of 382 leaders. Only 47 were women. Despite recent progress, only a third of the entities are currently headed by a woman. That includes the United Nations, which has never had a woman secretary-general, even though in 2016, when seven women competed against six men for the job, António Guterres, an ex-prime minister of Portugal, was selected by the most powerful members of the Security Council.

María Fernanda Espinosa, the head of GWL and a former Ecuadorean foreign minister who was president of the UN General Assembly from 2018-2019, said there had been slow gains in gender balancing across the organizations. Five have had a woman president only once in their history, the report said. The World Trade Organization’s current boss is Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. Thirteen institutions have never been led by a woman, including the World Bank, the International Atomic Energy Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. 

That’s why it is so important to have the data, the numbers, the oversight responsibility of monitoring and raising red flags when we see it,” Espinosa told PassBlue. GWL calls for proportional representation of women at all levels of multilateral bodies, from field offices to headquarters, as well as in secretariats and governing bodies. The report noted that “data shows that women’s representation is slightly better at the organizations in charge of areas such as children, food, population, and health,” or “soft” topics, as GWL said during its presentation on March 6 at the Ford Foundation in New York City. — DAMILOLA BANJO


• “Feminist Framework for the Secretary-General’s Report ‘Our Common Agenda,’ ” an event held at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, March 8. The panel focuses on the “debates at the General Assembly, Summit of the Future and other discussions such as the New Agenda for Peace.” Featuring, among others, Marissa Conway, chief executive of UNA-UK, talking about “women representation and participation in global decision-making: recommendations for a gender equal multilateral system.”

This article has been corrected to reflect that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the foreign minister of Pakistan, not the prime minister. The quote from the minister of state of the UAE has also been expanded. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the status of women?

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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International Women’s Day: Throwing a Spotlight on Muslim Women’s Rights
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