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International Women's Day, Federation of Muslim Women - March 8, 2013


Asalaamu alaykum and good morning,


I would like to welcome my fellow parliamentarians, MPPs, city councillors, and community leaders who have joined me here today. I am delighted to celebrate International Women’s Day with you.


Today we recognize the achievements women have made here in Canada and abroad, as well as the many challenges that remain. 



One of those challenges is how to build a just and equitable society; to have all of our voices heard. To do this, we must ensure that we have diversity in leadership in our governments and society at large.


I am encouraged by organizations such as the Federation of Muslim Women, who are dedicated to human rights, equality and justice. I commend you on your efforts in advocating and supporting the potential of Canadian Muslim women.



In order for Muslim women to be recognized in Canada, we must participate in this society. We are lucky to live in a country where women have made significant gains and have been provided multiple avenues to contribute to their communities.


I believe that I was appointed to the Senate because I became recognized as someone who was involved and interested in my surroundings.  I participated in organizations such as The Citizens Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Pashtun Cultural Association, the South Asian Regional Council of Canada, even the Parent Advisory Council for my daughter’s public school.  I am privileged to be the first Canadian Senator of Pakistani origin, and one of 38 women in the Senate.


Women now account for more than one third of the Senate’s membership, and many of the Senate’s current leaders are women. Our House of Commons is composed of 76 female Members of Parliament, a more than 50% increase from the last Parliament in 2011. In addition, the Conservative caucus, to which I belong, is one of the most ethnically diverse in history.


In the 20th century, one of the greatest changes to democracy around the world has been the increased participation of women in politics, both as voters and as MPs. However, in many countries, women still struggle to have their rights recognized.



I often reflect upon the state of women in my birth country of Pakistan, where women continue to live in an extremely patriarchal society.


I remember that when visiting camps for displaced persons in the Swat Valley, I was approached by large numbers of women who had difficulties in addressing the men. They found it challenging to ask for necessities that they desperately needed, and came to me to ask on their behalf.


When I visited Pakistan after the flooding of 2010, I wanted to meet the women in the camps again, but could not due to security reasons. Instead, an astonishing 300 women gathered at a residence in Nowshera to meet me. Many of them had remained in the camps for months after the flooding because they had nowhere else to go.


Despite these unfavourable conditions, I was amazed by the strength of the women in the face of adversity. In both cases, I have been moved by the remarkable courage and tenacity of these women to persevere.


The sad reality is that while women are very capable, social norms persist which discourage their education. In my home province of Khyber Pakthunkhwa, education levels remain very low among girls, where literacy rates are between 3 and 8%. We know quite well that the largest return on investment is in girls’ education, where families are proven to be richer and healthier.


On this note, I am always adamant that we cannot forget about the education of boys. In Pakistan, girls rely on the advice of their male counterparts – their fathers, brothers and husbands. If men are educated, they are more likely to support the education of women.


Mindsets must change in both genders. I often hear from men and women alike that their daughters are like sons because they are the breadwinners of the family. This needs to change.  The role of the woman should be accepted as one of her choice – whether it is at work or in the home.


The good news is that things are gradually moving in a positive direction. We have all been inspired by Malala Yusufzai, a young girl who began blogging for the BBC at the age of 11 about her life under Taliban rule. Malala went to school in secret, with books hidden under her clothes, and became the voice for the girls in the Swat Valley. Because of this, Malala and two of her schoolmates were attacked by the Taliban this past October.


I was so moved by Malala’s story that I visited her and her family in England this past November. I wanted to convey my respect and support, and to let her know that Canada stood behind her and her fight for the rights of women and girls.


Because of mavericks like Malala, things are moving in a positive direction, but there are still challenges. The fact that we have an International Women’s Day and not an International Men’s Day, shows that there is still progress to be made.


It is our responsibility to get involved in our communities for the betterment of future generations and to provide an example to nations that are still learning and developing.

Whether you become involved in politics or civil society organizations, like FMW, we must work together to empower women and build a more just and equitable society.


I promise you that it will be worth it. One of the most rewarding moments of my life occurred while visiting Edmonton, where a young Muslim girl told me that upon seeing me, a Muslim woman and Canadian Senator, she finally felt like she belonged.


Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you today. I hope that you enjoy the rest of your morning and have a happy International Women’s Day.