Friday, June 6, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Benazir Bhutto at the UN Conference on Women

It's Hillary Clinton's "women's rights are human rights" speech, also part of The Eloquent Woman Index, that is best remembered from the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing. But Benzair Bhutto's address, "Islam Forbids Injustice Against People, Nations and Women," was delivered to one of the Pakistan prime minister's biggest audiences, and she seized the moment. 

At first glance, the speech's message -- that Islam protects the rights of women -- may seem defensive to westerners. But Bhutto, who made women's rights a central hallmark of her political activism and governing, was quick to discern between social norms and religious tenets, urging Muslim women to speak up on the distinction.
Muslim women have a special responsibility to help distinguish between Islamic teachings and social taboos spun by the traditions of a patriarchal society. This is a distinction that obscurantist would not like to see. For obscurantists believe in discrimination. Discrimination is the first step to dictatorship and the usurpation of power.
And with that last sentence, she threw down a gauntlet: Discriminating against women is a power grab, plainly stated, and, as the "first step to dictatorship," political as well as personal. In a rhythmic recitation, she details the teachings of Islam that support women's rights:
In distinguishing between Islamic teachings and social taboos, we must remember that Islam forbids injustice;
Injustice against people, against nations, against women.
It shuns race, colour, and gender as a basis of distinction amongst fellowmen.
It enshrines piety as the sole criteria for judging humankind.
It treats women as human beings in their own right, not as chattel. A woman can inherit, divorce, receive alimony and child custody. Women were intellectuals, poets, jurists and even took part in war.
The Holy Book of the Muslims refers to the rule of a woman, the Queen of Sabah. The Holy Book alludes to her wisdom and to her country being a land of plenty.
The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) himself married a working woman. And the first convert to Islam was a woman, Bibi Khadija.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) emphatically condemned and put an end to the practice of female infanticide in pre-Islamic Arabia.
 What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Don't waste your moment: Bhutto, ever strategic, took two sentences of her speech to critique the conference's core document, from the distinct viewpoint of a woman leader in a society straddling women's emancipation and discrimination: "The Platform is disturbingly weak on the role of the traditional family. This weakness can lead to misinterpretation, and even distortion by opponents of the women's agenda," she warned.
  • Take advantage of assumptions: Bhutto made a point, here and elsewhere, of taking advantage of those in her audience who might make assumptions about her and her leadership views. A devout Muslim and an advocate for women's rights? You bet. She did this not only with her words, but her appearance. It adds surprise for some in her audience, and affirmation for others.
  • Be precise when the detail is needed: In tying discrimination to dictatorship, Bhutto uses the term obscurantist, a term for someone who deliberately prevents facts from being known. It's a compact way of undermining those who use gender discrimination as being anti-democratic and anti-intellectual, a specific description that also implies that discrimination isn't about the women against whom it's wielded, but the power grab.
It's easy to see why, in her own UN speech, Malala Yousafzai chose to wear a shawl that belonged to Bhutto. The prime minister was the target of an attempted coup in 1995, the year of this speech, and assassinated in 2007; after her death, she was awarded one of the UN Prizes in Human Rights. You can read the full text of her speech at the UN Conference on Women, and listen to her announcement of many of the reforms noted in that speech in another address given in 1994 at the first-ever International Conference of Muslim Women Parliamentarians, in the video below. You also can see a trove of Bhutto's speeches online, well worth exploring. What do you think of this famous speech?

If you found this post useful, please subscribe or make a one-time donation to help support the thousands of hours that go into researching and curating this content for you.