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Speech by Princess Zahra at the International Ismaili Women's Forum, Toronto 1997-05-09

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Event - 1997-05-09
Friday, 1997, May 9
Princess Zahra
Princess Zahra Aga Khan

On behalf of the International Social Development and Sports Foundation, let me welcome you to the International Ismaili Women's Forum. I hope that you have all had safe journeys, and that you are rested and ready for three days of hard work. Before we begin, I would like to thank the Canadian National Council, the International Steering Committee and the many volunteers who have invested countless hours and made tremendous personal sacrifices to prepare this event.

During the past few years I have travelled around the world, with a mandate to visit a variety of institutions, including the Ismaili Council structure in general, the Social Welfare Boards, the Women's Portfolios, the Youth and Sports Boards, the Economic Planning Boards, and other elements of the Aga Khan Development Network. Mowlana Hazar Imam instructed me to give special priority to the subjects concerning women. Through these trips, I also acquired an understanding of the varied cultures in which Ismailis live, and the socio-economic situations which affect each Jamat individually. The thing which struck me most is that Ismaili men and women around the world are educated and generally progressive. They are immensely committed and hardworking. Ismaili women generally live in conditions which are better than the national average in their countries of residence.

These Ismaili women are not a homogenous group. They span all socio-economic levels, and represent a number of different cultures. Nevertheless, these women also share some of the same problems. In London and Nairobi, Singapore and Antananarivo, Bombay and Toronto, women face similar hurdles, and develop similar solutions. Many of them are prohibited from working outside the home, they have limited access to employment opportunities, technology, markets and credit facilities, and face barriers to upward mobility in their chosen careers. Although they are educated, and have an extensive range of institutions at their disposal, these are not utilised to their full potential.

Over the next three days, we hope to understand some of the predicaments faced by Ismaili women, and we hope to examine some of the tools which may be used to alleviate these predicaments, and thereby promote their overall social development. It is my feeling that through co-operation we will be able to accelerate the process of development. We must seek to develop between Ismaili women and men, fellowship and teamwork, shared learning, understanding, support and above all shared goals. These things could come about through our efforts to develop an ongoing communications system, and with the aid of international dialogue among leaders, Women's Portfolios, and the Jamat at large.

It would, however, be overly ambitious to think that major changes can be implemented this weekend. Because there are numerous predicaments facing women, and because attitudes are slow to change, it may take years and in some conditions, decades to make significant progress. Therefore, our goal will be to take the first of many manageable steps that will be required to promote women's development. This small yet critical step will be in the form of an in-depth analysis of economic empowerment. This is the process through which an individual is equipped with the resources and skills necessary to control market forces. Our hope is that this first step will provide women with the resources and skills necessary to eventually control all aspects of their lives.

Before we embark on our analysis of economic empowerment, we must first examine and understand some of the forces of society which mould and define the identity of Ismaili women, and which give rise to their current status. Muslim society subjects women to a complex combination of principles, which include cultural, social, legal, political, and religious elements. Ismaili women are subjected to these principles at different levels, varying from the very traditional patriarchal Muslim society to a relatively modern egalitarian social role. At any given time, this series of standards determines for the individual woman what is permitted, what is possible and what is prohibited. Our task is to disentangle and decipher this collection of principles within our own context. This will be a difficult task due to the complex demography of the Muslim world, and to the large number of religious schools of interpretation which it contains.

It is within this context that we must examine the current status of Ismaili women and chart a course of action. Beginning prior to the turn of the century, Ismaili women throughout the world have been encouraged to acquire more education than their peers. Consequently, Ismaili women are, today, relatively well educated. The benefits of this academic policy have been extensive:

Firstly, the educated mother is better informed on health, education, hygiene and nutrition, and hence provides a better environment for her children.
Secondly, the education of Ismaili women has allowed the Jamat to evolve on a societal, cultural, and even political basis, because the mothers' transmission of knowledge helps to raise the overall standing of the next generation.
Education has also been shown to correlate directly with a lower incidence of morbidity in both mental and physical health. Women who have some schooling avoid depression, and have a better understanding of the important role which her health plays in the life of her family. She is therefore more active, socially, professionally, and in numerous other ways.
An educated mother passes on education to her children, thus improving the child's academic performance and professional prospects.
Education has also encouraged women and men to pull together, and represent us in the eyes of the world.
These educated women do not, however, always play a great part in the economic life of their families or the Jamat. Men have always used their education or training to become financially productive - Ismaili men around the world devote themselves to their educations in order to attain the highest possible reaches of their chosen field, be it farming or pharmaceuticals. Yet, Ismaili women with the same educational backgrounds have all too often shied away from professionalism. What is more, both in rural and urban areas, the traditional professional life of these women went unrecognised, and often unremunerated.

Having provided education, we must now take the next step. We must make it acceptable for a woman to have a career, and turn education into income. We must encourage Ismaili women to take the appropriate steps and empower themselves to become potent economic contributors not only for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of their families and of the Jamat. In order to achieve this goal, it is important that men and women both understand why is it desirable, and what benefits we stand to gain from such changes in society.

We are here today to begin building an agenda for change, for improvement of women's economic and social status, for dual income families, and for better lifestyles. We will seek to find concrete measures which will bring about these improvements. We are here to understand and overcome the barriers which impede these changes, and to learn how to ease the pains of societal evolution.

We are not here to create discourse, but to promote dialogue. We are not here to impose changes, or to encourage culturally indifferent mimicry, but to disclose options. We should not advocate that women necessarily shed their traditional roles in order to pursue a professional career. Rather, we should refer to those periods in a woman's life, either before, during or after her child-rearing years, when today's society provides her with professional opportunities. As our societal mores change, women marry and have children later, thus leaving them more time to develop professional careers. Furthermore, since the advances of modern medicine enable us to live longer and healthier lives, a woman whose children have grown up and left home still has many active and productive years ahead. In addition, the wonderful technological innovations of the last decades in the fields of computers and communications, will permit us to work from home, and the increasing opportunity for part-time work, will greatly facilitate the simultaneous combination of wife, mother, and professional.

In pursuing our goals, we must attempt above all, to build co-operation and synergy between genders, between socio-economic strata, at every level and every stage of women's economic empowerment. I do not believe in militant feminism. Antagonism between genders cannot be creative or productive, it can only detract from the process of building for societal development. Instead of changing through revolution, we should seek to change through co-operation and collaboration. We must also be cognisant that given the wide ranging diversity of Ismaili women, it will be necessary to formulate a policy which accommodates this diversity, while at the same time respecting and preserving the moral and ethical framework of our religious tradition.

It is in this context that networking can play a pivotal role. Networks are flexible, and provide a vehicle for individuals and organisations to share information and strategies without authoritarianism or dogmatic imposition. Through networking, women can learn by sharing experiences and information, and decide for themselves what appears most relevant in their own context.

In practice, if a certain Ismaili community is faced with a particular concern, then that community must clearly define the issue, provide the context, and assign the values which will guide the solution. Particular efforts will have to be made to accurately portray any personal and cultural diversities that exist and which are ignored, misconceived or misrepresented. Other groups can help by mobilising support through the use of media, and other means of communication, to facilitate interaction between other communities, and between Ismaili men and women. This collaboration will hopefully transcend political and cultural divides, and create essential support mechanisms.

It is the application of these theories that have led to the profound success of NGOs such as SEWA in India. This organisation relied on its beneficiaries to develop its policies, basic goals, and evaluation methods. SEWA therefore has a comprehensive understanding of women's needs in each specific case, stemming from the women's own experiences and perspectives. We must do the same. As we develop a communications network and define our activities, we must be constantly attentive to the beneficiaries, and allow them to define their own needs, priorities, and activities. They must set the pace for appropriate and effective social evolution. They must own and be responsible for the projects they undertake.

Without exception, all of us here are intimately connected with an international organisation of amazing scope, which commands huge resources, and affects a very large constituency. The Aga Khan Network - be it Jamati or non-Jamati - is growing at a phenomenal pace, and has acquired international recognition and renown for its activities throughout the world. Our direct access to the Network is an important resource: we must analyse it, develop it, and capitalise on it. During our discussions of the next few days, I would ask you to keep this link in the forefront of your minds, and consider in every debate how we can use the institutions of our Network for support, advice, and resources. We should also attempt to define the major issues and primary needs in women's economic development, so that we can then turn to the appropriate institutions in the Network for assistance in their solution. Such issues could include amongst others:

Identify the bottlenecks which prevent Ismaili women from being professionally and financially successful in their own right.
Determine whether girls receive the most appropriate forms of education, at the primary, secondary and university levels, to prepare them for an economically active life.
Ascertaining whether housewives who wish to return to the workplace require educational, professional and financial support systems.
And whether we can improve women's access to continuing professional development, skills upgrading and credit availability.
The list goes on, but in short, we must look for areas where the Network can help Ismaili women by evolving or developing the necessary institutions or programmes. We will learn more about the Network during the next three days, but it is important that all our discussions take into account the future potential of this co-operation.

We should also look outside our own institutions, as we are about to do in the case studies and discussions of this Forum, to find successful programs which can be adapted to suit our own needs at all levels of educational and professional achievement. These could include co-operative societies, credit societies, handicraft organisations, professional associations, support groups, resource centres, newsletters, job banks, training groups and mentoring organisations.

For almost a century, we have spoken of the educated, professional woman as a goal. Mowlana Sultan Mohammed Shah once wrote: "Women equipped with means of earning a livelihood need fear nothing." We must now turn this wise statement into a reality. This may be a tall order, but we must make a start. Where a start has been made, we must accelerate the pace.

In due course, we must try to address all the problems that face the women in the Ismaili Jamat, no matter how delicate or controversial these may be. However, to reach a point where we are capable of doing this successfully, we must be careful to start with an agenda which we can tackle competently. We must develop credibility and self-assurance, and we must learn from others. Most of all, we must attempt to build co-operation among continents, between genders, and among socio-economic strata, at every level and every stage of women's economic empowerment. This Forum is the first step.


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