Protecting the rights of ethnic minorities is by no means a new issue for us. For years, the European Union has fought for equal opportunities, justice, fair treatment - at work, in society at large. For women. For men. For migrant workers. For people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
But the events over the past six months, and the rise in anti-Islamic sentiment, have forced us to review and to reassess the situation. Now more than ever, the onus is on us to take a closer look at the role of Muslim women - in all their diversity - across the European Union. Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to replace fear with trust, suspicion with dialogue, ignorance with knowledge and understanding.
We need to ask ourselves: how Muslim women and girls - are treated? How they are perceived? How they have or have not - been integrated - into jobs, local communities and schools across Europe? What barriers and obstacles they face? And how these can best be overcome?
To do this we need to hear the voice of Muslim women themselves. We need to launch a serious dialogue between communities, public authorities and civil society. A dialogue of mutual respect and understanding. Promoting equality must not come only in reaction to world events, it must be a permanent obligation for all of us.
The 11 September and the war in Afghanistan have been a double-edged sword for women world-wide.
From a positive viewpoint, these events have helped to push gender issues up the international political agenda. Overnight, it seemed, the long-standing, barbaric treatment of Afghan women became headline news.
This debate soon extended to issues beyond Afghanistan’s borders. As people began to realise that the plight of Afghan women and girls was by no means unique. That throughout the world, women are the victims of violence sometimes systematic violence - abuse and extreme discrimination.
So over the past few months governments and the international community have begun to sit up and take gender violence and abuse seriously.
But there has, regrettably, been a negative side, too. Closer to home this time. As the failure to distinguish between violence and religion fuelled anti-Islamic views throughout the West. Irresponsible, slipshod phrases in the press, such as ’Islamic terrorists’ have not helped, of course.
As a result stereotypes have been resurrected. Clichés have resurfaced. Prejudices reinforced. About Muslims in general, but about Muslim women, in particular.
Leading people to draw superficial, and simply erroneous, conclusions:
That all Muslim women are victims.
That all Muslim women are passive and docile.
That men in Muslim communities fully control the lives of women.
That Islam is basically anti-women.
Today we have come together to fight these stereotypes. To dispel these myths and labels.
We have come here to celebrate the rich and active role Muslim women play within their own communities, and within European society as a whole. Recognising their achievements. Acknowledging their diversity.
But we are also here to look at the difficulties they face. In integrating into society, into local communities, into the labour force.
Because the truth is that many Muslim women face double discrimination. Discrimination because of their gender - Sexism. And discrimination because of their faith and ethnic background - Racism.
Our challenge is to ensure that Muslim women in Europe continue to exert free choice and independence in their personal and family lives. That they enjoy full and equal access to goods, to services, to jobs, to education, to training.
The role of religion and culture is important here. As powerful social forces they can help bring about peace, co-operation, and tolerance.
But we must never forget the founding principles of the European Union: the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.
All of us, from all faiths and nations, have a responsibility to uphold and defend these common values. Values which are compatible with every faith. But not with every practice. We must never turn a blind eye to discrimination. In whatever form it takes. From harassment at work. To forced marriages. To violence and abuse.
Fighting discrimination has long been high on the Community’s agenda. But especially so over the past 5 years.
Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty gave us explicit powers to tackle all forms of discrimination. On the grounds of sexual orientation, racial or ethnic origin, age, religion and sex.
1997 was the European Year Against Racism - a great success in raising awareness and fighting stereotypes.
The same year the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna was set up, to report on racism across the EU and to highlight good practices to combat it.
More recently, in June 2000, we managed to push though - in record timing - a package of legal measures on anti-discrimination. Backed with a 6-year, €100 million action plan.
The package includes specific rules on racial and ethnic discrimination. Not just in the workplace. In schools and colleges, social welfare systems, housing. In accessing all goods and services.
Meanwhile, our work on tackling gender discrimination against women - of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds - continues to move forward on all fronts. Through our legislative initiatives, through our gender mainstreaming programme, through our Employment Strategy, which aims, in particular, to empower women in the labour market.
So the Union is active. But we must do more. To understand the needs, priorities, and demands of Muslim women. To dispel myths. To fight stereotypes. To promote tolerance and respect. To foster dialogue, debate and co-operation. To promote not just a tolerance of difference, but a celebration of Europe’s rich cultural, ethnic and religious diversity.
European and national institutions and agencies also need to ask what they are doing in their own employment and personnel policies. Little data exists, but it is obvious that there are very few Muslim women in public posts across Europe, and even fewer at senior levels.
Muslim communities themselves must also take steps to foster and promote integration. We know that women play an active role in these communities, but we must make sure that this role and contribution are visible to the outside world.
To do this we must look at how we can strengthen and expand groups and networks representing Muslim women. Which we know are active and dedicated, but are often lacking in human and financial resources. But I believe that all networks and NGOs representing women have a role to play here. Supporting Muslim networks and making sure that they themselves reflect the full diversity of women in Europe today.
Our guest speakers today will look at the reality of the situation facing Muslim women in Europe today. They will share with us their experience from the workforce and from their active involvement in civil society. They will look at ways of facing the duel challenge of combining different cultures, while respecting basic democratic principles. They will look at how we can begin to strengthen integration, dialogue, tolerance and understanding in the European Union of today, and the wider Union of tomorrow.