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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 October 2007, 17:10 GMT
Cherie's cautious criticism
By Emily Buchanan
World Affairs correspondent

Cherie Blair
Mrs Blair is a committed Roman Catholic
Cherie Blair has dedicated much of her career as a barrister to the field of human rights, and has long campaigned on the issue of women's equality.

Her lecture though was an unusual one for her in arguing so forcefully against the role religion can play in perpetuating prejudice. Mrs Blair is herself a committed Roman Catholic.

"Religion is only as good as the people who operate it," she said in an interview for the BBC before the lecture.

She was careful however to argue that at the heart of all the major faiths the principles of universal human rights were sacrosanct, and problems came with the way religious texts were interpreted.

Gender gap

Mrs Blair made a plea against the West adopting an apologetic stance towards human rights.

She was adamant that the universal principles could not be watered down, arguing "it is important to confront those who deny the universality of human rights and use religion as an excuse for the continuation of prejudice".

The wife of former prime minister Tony Blair cited examples of discrimination backed up by religion; unequal divorce rights in Egypt and the position of women in Orthodox Jewish communities.

She didn't mention Iran or other Middle Eastern countries by name, perhaps mindful of the role of her husband as an envoy in the region

However she stressed that Britain and other Western countries, while making great strides, have less than perfect records themselves.

In fact there was an indirect criticism of Labour's ten years in power as she said that despite the Equal Pay Act, British women in full time work still earn 17 per cent less per hour than men.

When asked about Saudi Arabia she avoided criticising its long record of pervasive discrimination against women.

Saudi visit

Instead she described how women there are now setting up their own businesses and there are now more women graduates than men coming out of Saudi universities.

Her caution may have been due to the fact that the King of Saudi Arabia is at present on an official visit to Britain.

She didn't mention Iran or other Middle Eastern countries by name, perhaps mindful of the role of her husband as an envoy in the region.

Muslim women
Mrs Blair was cautious when asked about the niqab

Cherie Blair has frequently had a bad press, whether over property deals or being accused of cashing in on her husband's name with foreign lecture tours.

So it was unsurprising she was wary when asked about the sensitive subject of Islamic veils.

She said it was important not to get "hung up" on the issue of women's clothing, but when pressed she seemed to agree with the former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the niqab, or full veil over a woman's face, can be a barrier to integration.

She said: "If you get to the stage when a woman can't express her personality and you can't see her face then you have to ask if that is acknowledging a woman's right to be a person in her own right."

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