NEW YORK CITY: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Wednesday reiterated that women’s rights are synonymous with Islamic rights, and called on the Taliban to live up to the promises they made to respect women’s rights and rescind their decision banning women from secondary and college education.
Speaking at at the UN headquarters in New York during a day-long “Women in Islam” conference marking International Women’s Day, officials and heads of international organizations also urged Western media outlets to address negative stereotypes in their coverage of Muslim women. Meanwhile, an Emirati official drew a direct connection between religious extremism and Islamophobia.
“The common thread in everyone’s message today covered the unfortunate situation in Afghanistan, and everyone expressed their displeasure and disappointment that women in Afghanistan have not only been deprived of their rights but the interim government has not yet lived up to its promises to allow access to education,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose country currently holds the rotating chair of the OIC, told Arab News after the conference.
It is especially disappointing that the Taliban uses Islam as a justification for their treatment of women, he added.
“All countries within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are unanimous that this has nothing to with Islam, that this is alien to the concept of Islam, and the first word of the Holy Qur’an is ‘Read,’ and we continue to press the interim government to in Afghanistan to live up to their promises and grant women their right to education,” Bhutto Zardari said.
The Yemeni deputy permanent representative to the UN, Marwan Ali Noman Aldobhany, compared the actions of the Taliban with those of the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen, saying that both groups deny women their political, economic and social rights.
Gender segregation is rife in schools and all institutions under Houthi control, he said, and there are severe restrictions on the movement of women from one city to another.
“These militias abduct hundreds of Yemeni women, throw them in secret prisons, then frame them with crimes,” said Aldobhany. “They torture them and sexually attack and exploit them because of their political activity.”
He called on UN member states to denounce such practices, which have “no connection to Islam.”
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK minister of state for the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and UN at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the prime minister’s special representative for preventing sexual violence in conflict, told the conference that “societies prosper, nations progress when women are at the heart of progress.”
He lamented the “untold challenges” women and girls face around the world and described the economic cost of their exclusion from political, economic, educational and social spaces as “stark.”
“The cost to our global society is harder to measure but just as troubling, and should be a concern to us all in our work around the world,” he added.
Lord Ahmad called on all countries to act as one in demanding the Taliban grant women their rights, and ask the question of them: “What are you doing? This is not Islam.”
Emirati minister of State Noaura Al-Kaabi said many women and girls around the world are discriminated against, have decisions made for them, and are systematically excluded simply because they are female.
“This is not an issue that is particular to just one region, race or religion,” she said. “It is a global epidemic.”
However, gender discrimination targeting Muslim women is exacerbated by distortion, misrepresentation and misperception of their religion, Al-Kaabi said.
Extremism and Islamophobia are two sides of the same coin, she added.
“Extremism distorts Islam as a means of justifying discriminatory practices and misogynistic policies against women and girls,” Al-Kaabi said. “Islamophobia instrumentalizes the status of women and Islam in a cynical effort to vilify and ‘otherize’ Islam and Muslims.”
She condemned the Taliban’s violations of the rights of Afghan women and girls, and urged UN member states to reject any efforts to legitimize the distortion of Islam that is used to justify systematic discrimination.
May Jasem Mohammed Al-Baghly, Kuwait’s minister of social affairs and community development and minister of state for women and children’s affairs, called for efforts to combat stereotypes associated with Muslim women, and pointed out that in Islam, men and women are considered equals.
“We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another,” she said, quoting the Qur’an.
Wafa Bani Mustafa, the Jordanian minister of social development, said her country, which hosts the second-largest refugee population in the world, grants particular importance to female refugees and “guaranteeing them a dignified life on the basis of the humanist messages of Islam and the moral values of all Jordanian people.”
Jordan has taken steps to strengthen its legislative framework, which is based on Shariah, particularly in terms of civil affairs, Mustafa said, adding that Jordanian women benefit from all necessary legal protections in marriage, divorce and education.
The Palestinian minister of women’s affairs, Amal Hamad, described the ways in which Palestinian women are victimized by the Israeli occupation, and highlighted the efforts made by Palestinian authorities to counter gender-based discrimination, including the adoption of measures for financial inclusion with the aim of ensuring women can be financially independent.
Lolwah Al-Khader, the Qatari assistant foreign minister, said the Qur’an describes women as “the twin halves of men.”
She added that “the question of woman is one which should be answered beyond politics, (for) what we are witnessing today is the transformation of women’s issues from a legitimate concern to a contentious political topic.”
Al-Khader noted that the issues women must contend with are, in essence, the same everywhere.
“On a daily basis, women have to deal with gender-based discrimination, gender-based violence, a gender-based glass ceiling and much more,” she said.
These problems are compounded for Muslim women, whose struggles are “constantly politicized at every juncture,” she added.
“When we look at the world today, sadly, we notice the unchecked rise of Islamophobia as a phenomenon, and discourse culminating over the past few decades to embed itself in popular national narratives,” said Al-Khader.
“The effects of such escalations are felt acutely by Muslim women, (who) are more vulnerable to discrimination and hate crimes and often face a double penalty for being women, Muslim — and even worse, if they belong to ethnic minorities.”
Mohammed Al-Hassan, Oman’s permanent representative to the UN, said that despite the efforts of Islamophobic campaigns, the message of Islam remains an eternally monotheistic message that enshrines the dignity of all human beings, “whether men or women.” He called on all countries to work together to protect the rights of women, especially Afghan women.
“The situation in Afghanistan is not representative of Islam or Muslims in general, and we reject any association between the situation in Afghanistan and the perception of Islam,” he said.