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Bahraini Woman Takes Over UN General Assembly

The U.N. General Assembly has opened its 61st session and for the first time a Muslim woman is in the president's chair. From U.N. headquarters, VOA's Peter Heinlein has more on Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa of Bahrain.

With a sharp rap of the gavel, Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa brought the General Assembly to order Tuesday. "I declare open the 61st session of the General Assembly."

The first order of business was a moment of silence for the ruler of the Pacific island nation of Tonga.The 88-year old King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died this week.

Al-Khalifa comes to the United Nations after achieving prominence as one of Bahrain's first female lawyers, and as an advocate for women's rights under Sharia law. She has also served as Bahrain's ambassador to France, and as a delegate to the U.N. Education and Scientific Organization, UNESCO.

She is the first woman to serve as General Assembly president since 1969, when Angie Brooks of Liberia completed her term.

At a meeting with reporters after the opening session, the Assembly president was asked if she, as a Muslim woman, had any special perspective on the challenges facing the world body. "It does not matter if I am a Muslim or a Christian or Jewish, we are human beings and we have same worries and the same problems, and I think as a woman, I have also to face this fact of life, that the woman's position all over the world is not as expected [is not as it should be], and in many countries and civilizations, they consider woman a lesser human being. Maybe I can do something to improve the situation of women, I will do it, I will be very happy to do it," she said.

Moments later, Al-Khalifa reacted with surprise when a European journalist asked her if, as a Muslim, she thought there was any cause that would justify the killing of civilians. "We are all human beings, and nobody can accept that killing of somebody else is acceptable. It is not my opinion, it is the legal system all over the world, and anybody [who] says something different, it is not correct," she said.

The annual General Assembly debate is set to begin next Tuesday, featuring a number of heads of state and government from around the world. The first day's list of scheduled speakers includes President Bush, along with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, French President Jacques Chirac, South African President Thabo Mbeki, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.