International Conference on Women in Islam
10 November 2023
Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks at the opening ceremony of the International Conference on Women in Islam, in Jeddah on 6 November:
It is a great honor to be with you at this landmark conference on the rights and the role of women in Islam. And I pay my deep respect to the women here today.
I commend the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for bringing us together, and I thank the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, for your warm hospitality.
Today, as we gather in the heart of Saudi-Arabia, we also recognize your own steps toward rapid and deep transformation. Where women and young people have taken a crucial role in shaping the future. Yesterday, I met in Riyadh, a dynamic team of young women in the Ministry of Energy who work on clean energy solutions in Africa.
Sadly, this event is taking place in the time of yet another humanitarian crisis. Allow me to take a moment to speak about the human catastrophe unfolding in Israel and Gaza. Innocent children kidnapped and thousands more killed all taking the brunt of this war with nowhere safe to go. The equivalent of more than 4 Dreamliner aircrafts crashing.
I reiterate the Secretary-General’s strongest condemnation of any killing of civilians, the taking of hostages, including women and children and call for their unconditional release, as well as the need for all parties to abide by international humanitarian law and allow for a humanitarian ceasefire and unimpeded humanitarian access to the urgent needs of the people of Gaza.
We, in this region and the world, must all do everything in our power to end this horrific violence, pain, and suffering and return to the table of peace, only perhaps this time with women. Our Muslim faith demands of us that we care for our neighbors in times of need.
May Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta'ala, give us the wisdom and courage to do what is right.
Allow me to begin my formal remarks with a profound moment in the reorientation of Quran, when Um Salamah, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, asked this question, “Why is the Quran addressing only men.” In response, God revealed 33:35, the most beautiful verse, introducing, for the first time, perhaps in all human history, a gender-inclusive language in scripture.
What a remarkable declaration of equality – many centuries before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the United Nations Charter.
Let us recognize that women have made extraordinary contributions to Islamic civilization -- These luminous historical figures made decisions, taught, issued decrees, advised leaders, cured the ill, debated as equals, funded campaigns and even died as martyrs.
From the start, Islam recognized women’s right to participate in political decision-making, to inherit, to own property and businesses.
Yet many centuries later, in many countries and in many areas of life, women have been left behind.
I am honoured to be part of the discussion and contribute to this illustrious gathering on how we can return to Islam’s original and beautiful vision of measuring a person not by their gender but by the strength of their beliefs and the virtue of their acts.
We are together today to reflect on the timeless wisdom of our faith and what it teaches us about our collective responsibilities and aspirations for women and girls in our own time. After all, Islam is a living faith.
In a time of rising tensions; of widening inequalities; of escalating wars; of ever-worsening climate chaos – and of fierce pushback against the rights of women and girls.
It is a sad fact throughout history: women and girls often suffer first and worst.
Today, women are being failed the world over. Our mothers, wives, daughters.
Old forms of discrimination, violence and abuse against girls are worsening all over, while new forms of gender bias and inequality are often built into the algorithms of the new era of the digital world.
We all pay the price: our families and our societies are less peaceful, our economies less prosperous, our world is less just.
This conference shows that a different world is possible – a world where the dignity of all is respected and protected. We in Islam have the laws to guide us. Let us be clear, there are many Islamic schools of thought and a diversity of cultures within countries which makes it incumbent upon us to create the enabling environment for constructive discourse on the issues that we face.
I believe we can start by acting together in solidarity on three fronts to right the wrongs.
We must do more to secure the right to education for all, especially women and girls everywhere, because the Holy Quran demands it of us, "Are those who know equal to those who do not know?" Q39.9
However, the “right” kind of education is one that must be defined by an inclusive progressive, process that respects societal, religious and cultural norms that do no harm but give agency and dignity to all persons.
The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), who supported literacy initiatives, said: “Seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.”
This is true for men and women, boys and girls, young and old.
Islam clearly calls on us to end all discriminatory laws and practices that hinder access to education.
But across the world today, nearly 130 million girls are out of school.
Let me take a moment to speak about my sisters in Afghanistan
Afghan women and girls, like girls and women everywhere, have a right to education at all levels. This was exemplified by Fatima al-Fihri, who, in 859, left a grand legacy for education. Recognized as the founder of University of Qarrayywin in Morocco, the world’s oldest continuously operating, degree-awarding University, more than two centuries before Bologna (1088 CE) and Oxford (1096 CE).
Afghan women need to play their full part in building the future of their country, and their country needs its women and girls to flourish.
The Taliban’s harsh restrictions and denial of divinely granted rights must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
By investing in the education of our girls, we are not just uplifting individuals; we are securing a brighter future for our families, our sisters, communities and neighborhood.
Second, Economic empowerment.
Advancing economic opportunities and rights of women and girls is not just a question of fairness or equality; it’s a matter of justice, progress, and prosperity for the whole of society.
When women have the tools, opportunities, and resources to contribute to the economy, everyone wins.
But when millions of women and girls worldwide are prevented from contributing to their communities and to the economy. We see women’s rights trampled, as is the case in Afghanistan today. We all lose.
Yet we see hope across the Islamic world, we see countries demonstrating the compatibility of Islamic principles and the advancement and empowerment of women.
From, her in Saudi Arabia, Qatar to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Senegal and beyond, Muslim women scholars, women doctors, women entrepreneurs and political leaders are charting a path forward, rooted in tradition but embracing progress and change.
And in doing so, they are an inspiration to Muslim girls and women everywhere, proving that faith and empowerment go hand in hand.
Fundamentally, we must advance women’s leadership – particularly in matters of resolving conflict, mediation and sustaining peace.
We know peace processes, including mediation from the home to the battlefield, that involve women, lead to more sustainable peace outcomes.
Here too, this is not a matter of doing women a favour – it is about securing the very conditions for inclusive, peaceful and prosperous communities.
And it is about following in the footsteps of great women leaders throughout Islamic history.
The unwavering faith, boundless generosity, business acumen, and courage of Sayeda Khadijah bint Khuwaylid were crucial to Islam flourishing.
To the inspiring Sayeda Aisha bint Abu Bakr who narrated 2210 Hadiths that went beyond the life of the Prophet Muhammed PBUH to topics that addressed inheritance, pilgrimage, education and issued numerous legal opinions that were cited by later jurists to bolster their arguments – Muslim women leaders have been pivotal figures from the birth of Islam.
Throughout history and across regions – from Razia Sultan’s rule in India to Sayeda Hurra – Muslim women have made immeasurable contributions to humanity.
And today, Muslim women – like Nobel Peace Prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Narges Mohammadi, risking their lives and standing at the vanguard of the global fight for human rights and human dignity.
I salute and pray for them all. May Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta'ala continue to guide them all.
Islamic thought has evolved over the centuries.
Contrary to the stereotype of Muslim societies as static and unchanging, history shows relentless change and dynamic transformation.
The Islamic world is characterized by the constant exchange of ideas and advancement of people. This has advanced and enriched civilizations everywhere – just as it has transformed and enriched our own societies.
Muslim jurists – through the diligent application of Ijtihad – have been open to finding interpretations of Islamic Law consistent with changing circumstances and evolving values.
In modern times, Muslim states have reformed their laws to open the door to greater economic and political participation of women. This is a process we must intensify and encourage.
Across the Muslim world, we are seeing women’s groups – such as Musawah, Sisters in Islam, and Women Living Under Muslim Laws – advocating for gender equality and women's rights while remaining committed to their faith and traditions.
I urge all of you to listen to and amplify the voices of our women in our societies, especially our sisters in Afghanistan. Together, let us correct the false impression and ignorance that denying girls and women education and opportunities is consistent with our Islamic faith.
The Quran states, “A condition of a people will not change unless you change what is in yourself,” Change has to come from within, and this is where it begins, and these conversations must continue far beyond today.
I look forward to many more gatherings in Islamic settings – and I look forward to having more women at the lectern at our next meeting.
Before I visited Afghanistan in January, I held broad consultations in Islamic countries. From Türkiye to Indonesia and beyond, I heard over and over that Islam does not ban women from education, from the workplace or from public life. I was encouraged by the support I found everywhere from both men and women.
Finally, we are at the start of a conversation that must continue far beyond today into other countries and regions.
There is a recognition that it is time for a reset. That we need a serious conversation about women and girls’ rights in the context of our great religion, Islam.
Women and girls are waiting and hoping.
Hoping that these discussions will make a difference and change the negative narrative of women in Islam to one of rights and dignity of life.
Hoping that together, we can move from supportive statements to tangible policies and action in our communities and countries.
Together, let us realize Islam’s call for justice, equality, and the pursuit of knowledge by building a more just world for all.
I would like to show my deepest appreciation to our hosts for developing a platform where women’s voices are amplified, where they are not only speaking about surviving but about thriving--and where women look to a future in which their rights are no longer a question but an undeniable truth.