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International Women's Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:36 pm on 11th March 2010.

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Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Central 2:36 pm, 11th March 2010

I wholeheartedly welcome this debate taking place in the House. It is a sign of the progress that we as a nation have made and a testament to the unwavering commitment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to achieving equality, particularly for women.

I am sure the whole House will agree that women have made, and are making, tremendous contributions in all fields, both in this country and abroad. For example, in the United Kingdom we have had a woman Prime Minister and a woman Speaker of this House, Ladies Thatcher and Boothroyd respectively, in honour of whom we have named two Committee Rooms. Although I did not take part myself, in the debate back in 2008 Opposition Members complained that no one on the Labour Benches had mentioned Lady Thatcher. I therefore wish to make a point of recognising her contribution as the first woman to become Prime Minister of the UK, despite our political and ideological differences.

In my native country of Pakistan, we have had the late Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, who rose to become the first Muslim woman Prime Minister of her country. She was a great leader whose tragic death was a great loss to the people of Pakistan and the international community, and a personal loss to me as she was a very close friend of mine. Elsewhere abroad, in Kuwait we have seen for the very first time four women elected as Members of Parliament. I am vice-chair of the all-party group on Kuwait, and my office regularly takes on interns from Kuwait, the last two of whom have been talented young Kuwaiti women.

I have always campaigned vigorously for, and sought to encourage, women from minority groups, particularly Muslim women, to come forward and run in both local and national elections, so that there is better representation in the House. I am pleased and proud that the Labour party has selected four Muslim women in winnable seats, and I am sure that after the general election we will have Muslim woman Members of Parliament in this House.

At home, there is the completely unacceptable issue of the trafficking of women for domestic servitude and/or sexual exploitation. In today's global age, we rightly take great pride in our ability to work with other countries in tackling common problems. I therefore believe that we must do all we can to bring that shocking criminal activity to an end by working with other countries and establishing greater cross-border co-operation. I pay tribute to the work of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children, and its chair, Mr. Steen who, like me, will be leaving this House at the next general election.

I must also mention her excellency, Her Royal Highness Princess Lalla Jamala Aloui, who was recently appointed as the ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco in London. Her excellency has been doing a wonderful job, not only as head of the Moroccan mission in London, but as an ideal role model to all Arab women. I will be working closely with her to bring the famous Fès festival of sacred music to London.

Mr. Hollobone raised the issue of the burqa and the hijab. I must tell him that some Muslim women in this country wear the hijab and some do not-I have taken the opportunity to visit many Muslim countries-but very few wear the burqa or the niqab. However, I believe that today's debate is about empowering women, and what a woman wants to do in life is her choice. Action should be taken against those who force women to wear the niqab, but it is not a big issue in this country, and there is no need for the matter to be debated here.

Finally, one issue that is very close to my heart-my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer raised it-is forced marriages. That must be addressed. In 1996, three young Muslim women, who were at school, were taken for holidays to my native country, Pakistan, and forced into marriages and detained against their will. When that was brought to my attention by the school and social workers-those were very powerful people-I flew to Pakistan and intervened with the police authorities and the judiciary. I was glad and proud to bring the women back. That sent a very clear and strong message that that type of behaviour is unacceptable in our country. We should all work together to ensure that such cases do not happen here.