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Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): The hon. Lady will be heartened to know that female genital mutilation was discussed during negotiations in Beijing. Does she agree that, far too often, people brush the subject under the carpet and do not want to talk about it because it is taboo and not to be discussed in the open? We have a duty, particularly as women parliamentarians, to speak out about the matter and to say that it is absolutely wrong.

Mrs. Mahon: I agree with the hon. Lady. The practice is a absolute violation of human rights, yet it is conducted in the name of religion or for cultural reasons, among Christian as well as Muslim women. It predates such religions, so the religions cannot claim that it is done for religious reasons. I believe that it is done to control women and to keep them under the thumb, so to speak.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): Often, such practices and other human rights violations are dismissed as village Islam--just as a village in Poland might be more Catholic than the Pope. Does my hon. Friend agree that religious leaders have a responsibility to teach their flocks exactly what their religion says and not to allow ignorance to develop?

Mrs. Mahon: Absolutely. Such mutilation has nothing to do with the great religions of the world. It is an abuse and a violation.

I shall briefly discuss what is happening in Afghanistan. When the South African Government declared a state of apartheid--an inhuman system, which institutionalised the supposedly superior status of whites in all political, economic and social matters--the world was rightly outraged. How could the civilised world stand by and watch such an obscenity take place? That white South African state became a pariah state, and a magnificent campaign was fought, in which many of us were involved, to end that evil.

Where is the outcry against gender apartheid in Afghanistan? Who is speaking out about the human catastrophe taking place there? Where are the major debates in the United Nations? When there was apartheid in South Africa--a dreadful evil, which I helped to oppose--it was an almost weekly issue for discussion. However, since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, women and girls have been legally--under the Taliban--subjected to extreme conditions of exclusion. That wicked regime, in a country of millions of war-damaged people and widows, has denied basic human rights to all girls and women.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said, in Afghanistan women are barred from receiving any education. They are banned from work and are not allowed to leave home unaccompanied. They are almost under house arrest. Girls are married off, quite often, to strangers much older than themselves, and in some cases just used as sex slaves.

The Council of Europe--I am grateful for the work that it has done--has studied the situation and is trying to draw attention to it. Naturally, it condemns it. The Council of

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Europe published a report in November 1998. Evidence had been taken from agencies and from Afghans who had witnessed at first hand the Taliban's treatment of women. Interestingly, the report says clearly that that treatment has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. It was taught by the Taliban in the camps in Peshawar. I tried to get there about eight years ago, but was turned back when I reached the camps. They said that I was a wicked woman, and I was not allowed to enter. Those camps taught that evil; the Pakistani Government has much to answer for in that.

Amnesty International has condemned the treatment that is inflicted on women and girls in Afghanistan. It now says that those women are prisoners of conscience, and that the restrictions should be lifted immediately.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan--one of the only three countries to recognise the Taliban regime--things are not very good for women. The plight of many women in rural areas is grim indeed. In 1979, Zia, then head of the military regime, introduced several ordinances dealing directly with women; those are still in force. The first and most notorious, the Huddood ordinance, deals with--among other things--rape, adultery, fornication and prostitution, and suggests punishments for all those crimes. Zina, the adultery clause, has led to thousands of women being imprisoned--and, in many cases, beaten and killed--just because someone, not necessarily the husband, accuses them of adultery. Zina-bil-jahr, the clause dealing with rape, states that four male Muslims of good character must have witnessed the crime of rape. That makes it almost impossible for any woman to bring charges. That is an outrage; the Pakistan Government should hang their heads in shame because they still allow it.

People in Pakistan are working to do something about what is happening there. The Pakistan commission on the status of women, which began its work in 1984--some of whose members I met when I was in Pakistan--submitted a report. Its findings were clear. It said:

The United Nations 1994 human rights development report said:

    "Pakistani women's participation in education, health, labour and politics is lower than many countries in the region, reflecting a major crisis in civil society".

I believe that anyone who saw the BBC "Correspondent" programme, "Murder in Purdah", shown in January, will realise that it is vital that all the nations of the civilised world speak out. The testimony of the 15-year-old girl, given 24 hours before she died from the horrible burns that she had received from her husband or his relatives, will haunt those who saw it for a long time. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley(Ann Clwyd), chairman of the all-party group on human rights, will be showing the film at 6 o'clock on Monday 15 February in one of the Committee Rooms.

The 15-year-old had been virtually sold by her father to an older man, who will probably never be punished. The film repeatedly showed how the men are allowed virtually to sell their daughters. The husbands abuse them. Quite often, if the marriage breaks down, the women end up in prison or their children are taken from them. The men who have committed the crimes walk free; they bragged about it on the documentary. A man who had shot his wife kept the gun as a trophy, and bribed his way out of prison.

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We must campaign for the abolition of the Zina laws and the Huddood ordinances. The Pakistani Government cannot claim to be part of the civilised family of nations while it allows those crimes against women.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, I should like to finish by coming closer to home. I, too, was moved by Carol Sarler's article in The Observer. I believe that every woman from every community from certain parts of the subcontinent can associate with her opening remarks, which my hon. Friend so movingly read out.

Just this week, I have had yet another case of a young woman--a very bright, well-educated young woman, born in Halifax--who, last year, was tricked into going on holiday and married against her will. As she is well educated and has spirit, she is objecting to the marriage and has decided that the young man will not be brought into this country. However, we must question the role of the institutions that should be protecting those young, in this case Yorkshire--Halifax--girls. Obviously, they are being badly let down by the institutions. The law, it seems, is not for them.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar), who rescued Rifat Haq, who was 20 years old, and Nazia, who was 13 years old, who were abducted by their own father and married off. At 13, that is illegal in Pakistan as well as Britain, and we should be speaking out about it. The veil of silence should be lifted on that practice.

I want to mention Zoora Shah, a Bradford woman, who for 20 years was beaten and raped and made to sleep with other men by Mohammed Azam, the brother of Sher Azam--former head of the city's council for mosques. When that evil man tried to abuse her daughters, she poisoned him; but, because she was too ashamed, for cultural reasons, to defend herself properly, she was given a life sentence.

A few streets away in the same city, Shabir Hussain killed his sister-in-law, Tasleem Begum, in an "honour killing", because her arranged marriage had failed and she wanted to run her own life. He ran her down three times in his car and was sentenced to life for murder, but on appeal had his sentence reduced to one for manslaughter. Passing judgment, Judge Hodson said:

That judgment was outrageous. The double standards applied in those two cases are mind-blowing--the result of the conspiracy of silence surrounding anything to do with basic human rights for Asian women. We are in danger of importing the principles of Zina and the Huddood ordinances into the streets and cities of this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley and I intend to campaign for an end to gender apartheid. We want the victims to contact us here in the House of Commons. We intend to lobby, to harass and to ensure that all the agencies that should be protecting women to do their jobs. Lest there be accusations of racism, let me say that, like my hon. Friend, I have black grandchildren who are the absolute joy of my life. I reject any accusation of racism. I have friends whom I love in the Muslim

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community. I certainly was not popular politically for opposing the bombing in Iraq against ordinary Muslims. Any claims of racism are nonsensical.

I have read the United Nations universal declaration of human rights and there is no exclusion clause explaining that the declaration does not cover female genital mutilation. There is no footnote excluding Afghan women, or Pakistani women in Bradford, Halifax, Keighley, Wolverhampton or Glasgow. Universal means every man, woman and child on this planet. If we do not speak up for that, we deny human rights for millions of women and girls.

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