16 May 2006

Grand Conference of Imams

Statement by Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director, UNFPA

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

In the name of God the merciful the compassionate

Grand Conference of Imams

Honourable Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia

Respected State Minister for Religious Affairs

Distinguished Imams, Ladies and Gentlemen

Assalamualaikum wa rahmatoulahi wa barakatu,

I am honoured to have the opportunity to address such an important gathering in the presence of the Honourable Prime Minister.

It is important because we are all aware of the critical role of imams in ensuring the well-being of the people. I have been told that there are more than 250,000 mosques in Bangladesh, which signifies that the people of Bangladesh are extremely pious and that the imams have a critical role in guiding the people in their daily lives.

The imams, by their very position in society, influence the behaviour of people through interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith and through narrating Al-Sunna in ways that facilitate understanding of Islam, the deepening of belief and the exercise of faith in one's daily life. We all know that Islam is a complete code of conduct in our daily lives, and we say that Islam is for all times and all places. Only through interpretation of Al-Qur’an Al-Karim, that takes into consideration the context of people's lives, can Islam be directly relevant to the lives of people and the imams can help in guiding the people in matters of their immediate life, in particular marriage, the rights and duties of women and men, safe motherhood and responsible parenthood, as well as in participation in their families, communities and countries. It is said that the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH), said that religion is supposed to "facilitate life ".

In my own life story, Islam has been the empowering force behind my education and which helped give me the capacity to have choices. My father, mercy be upon him, who studied in the madrassah of the Prophet's Holy Mosque in Medina, the city where he was born and raised, was moved by his faith to provide as much educational opportunities to his daughters as to his sons. To him, God ordered all Muslims, men and women, to "read".

"Read in the name of God, your creator. He created man out of a clot of congealed blood. Read, and thy Lord is Most Bountiful. He who taught (the use of) the pen taught man that which he knew not." (Sura 96, the Clot).

Therefore, reading was the basis of knowledge and, thus, of being well informed and, thus, of becoming a true believer. And we also believe in Islam that God has given us the power to think and use our brains so that we can tell right from wrong. But how can we exercise this gift if we are not well-informed. Knowledge is an important aspect of Islam and of being a good believer.

Before Islam, female infanticide was widely practiced. But Islam made such an act a sin and went on to give women a very special place. First, God's words say that paradise is at the feet of mothers, thus making motherhood a very sacred function in our societies. By ensuring an independent economic status for women and ensuring that they participated in "voting/mubaya'a", which is a form of political participation, Islam enabled Muslim women to exercise two of the most important rights that, over 1,000 years later, became enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The whole concept of stopping female infanticide was part of Islam's assertion of the right of girls to life and not any life but a life of dignity and respect, in which women have both political participation and economic independence. Therefore, if we take this spirit of Islam, we would see any practice in contemporary life that deprives women of their rights to knowledge and education, to participation in society and to income that is their own, as a form of "female infanticide", in social, cultural and economic terms, if not in the literal, sense.

But where are women in many of our Muslim countries and how are they treated by their brothers? Where are the teachings of our faith and our Prophet (PBUH)? Maternal death rate is the indicator that shows the most disparity between developed and developing countries. And it is sad that many of these nations are Muslim. It is sad to inform you that many of the worst indicators in the quality of life of women and children are found in Muslim societies. It is also in our countries that poverty is a way of life, where illiteracy is extremely and unjustifiably high, where women are the poorest of the poor and where many who earn an income or inherit property are denied these rights. It is also in our Muslim countries that we have among the highest death rates of mothers; these mothers whom God has honoured by saying that paradise is under their feet because of the critical role they play in maintaining the family as the basic unit of society. And when mothers are unhealthy, so will their children. It is in our Muslim countries that violence against women is reportedly high, even though we all know that this kind of violence is global, taking place in both developed and developing countries. But that is not an excuse, since women occupy a very special position in Islam.

But there is progress. I am happy to know that the Government of Bangladesh has introduced free education for women up to grade 12. Honourable Prime Minister, I would like to congratulate you and your Government for this great initiative, which will go a long way in enhancing the status of women and overall economic development of the country. The Prophet (PBUH) said that women are the complements/siblings of men.

I know that I am speaking to people who already believe in the importance of women within the context of the family, the basic unit of society, as well as in their role in their communities and country. That is why we at UNFPA are both honoured and pleased to be associated with the orientation of imams on reproductive health, gender issues and HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh. We have established a unique programme among the United Nations family, which is a programme entitled, Culture, Gender and Human Rights. Through this programme we are promoting human rights through a culturally sensitive approach, where communities can build on the positive values and beliefs they have and where change is made by them and for their communities. We have learned a great deal from our experiences, where partnerships with faith-based organizations or community leaders have led to real breakthroughs in decreasing maternal and infant deaths; reducing illnesses resulting from pregnancy and related complications; preventing HIV and AIDS; and, in general, saving the lives of women and young people.

Therefore, our responsibility at UNFPA is to provide you with the basic seed of support with the hope that it will encourage the Government to undertake larger programmes for imams. We hope the imams that have already received training/orientation are contributing to positive changes in the status of women. Being at the grass-root level and close to the community, you are in a unique position, not only to save women's and infants' lives, but also to support women's participation in the overall development of society. You are in a unique position to let your voice be heard everywhere in the country and you can truly make a difference in the lives of your people: women, men, young and old.

Honourable Prime Minister, State Minister for Religious Affairs, I would like to congratulate you for undertaking such a programme for imams. I look forward to your establishing strong South-South cooperation among the ulama in Muslim countries in this regard. Finally, I would like to assure you that, within our limited resources, we will always support your efforts to orientate and train imams on issues that shape the living patterns of the people. As we say in our culture, education and information are light and we need both faith and knowledge to see the way to progress, to ending poverty, and to ensuring that the rights of women as members of society are well- guarded and protected.

We need to remember that God does not change the situation of people until they change what is in them, first.

Assalamou alaikoum wa rahmatoulahi wa barakatouh.