A Discussion with Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA
Background: Thoraya Obaid and Katherine Marshall sat down to reflect on Dr. Obaid's engagement with faith actors during a UN staff workshop in Turin, Italy in November 2010. In addition to discussing the upcoming stages of her career, after she leaves UNFPA in December 2010, the conversation builds on earlier exchanges and explores both the positive and less enthralling aspects of Dr. Obaid's longstanding determination to actively take culture and religion into account in pursuing UNFPA's mandate: to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect. Dr. Obaid affirms the power of that vision and her commitment to it; she views herself as a living example, as a devoutly Muslim woman whose father was committed to her education and who was able to make decisions about her own life. But, she argues, without engaging with religious communities and leaders, the enduring taboos and prejudices that work against equality and rights for women cannot be addressed.
Interview Conducted on November 24, 2010
You have worked, from the start to the near finish of your ten years at UNFPA, to recognize culture and religion as critical elements in the process of social change. What in your personal background inspired this rare vision?
When the Secretary General of the United Nations interviewed me for the position at UNFPA and asked me what I thought I could bring, I highlighted my conviction that we must address culture and religion if we were to succeed. And in my first speech to the UNFPA board, in September 2000, I made clear my intentions.
I say this because the Programme of Action adopted at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) is about reproductive health as a human right. It is an agenda that is culturally value-loaded and thus must be understood within that context in order to promote human rights through what is positive in each culture and society.
My parents, but especially my father, were important influences. My father was a devout Muslim who took very seriously the first principles in the Koran, the importance of learning. He was largely self-educated, and very well read, with a photographic memory. To him, knowledge was a central precept of Islam. I grew up in that environment. He was ahead of his time, perhaps influenced by the anti-colonial spirit of that era, which encouraged independent thought. I was the oldest girl and he and my mother wanted to fulfill their duties as good Muslims by educating me just like my brothers. My father also never interfered with my choices because he believed I am a capable person who can be responsible for decisions about her life.
When I was seven years old, even though he was not a wealthy man, he sent me to a boarding school in Egypt (there were no schools for girls in Saudi Arabia at the time). It was a Presbyterian missionary school. We were aware of the Christian religious orientation but practiced our Muslim beliefs; I recall that we, the young Muslim girls who were boarders, raced upstairs to pray before our teachers' prayers to save our souls, to be sure that our prayers reached heaven first. My father told me afterwards that, as I cried as he left me at the school, it would have been easiest to take me home, but he was determined that I would get an education and, as we went on, to have the chance to choose for myself.
Did you grow up in Saudi Arabia?
I was born in Iraq, where my uncle lived at the time. That was the time of the British mandate, and the region was open, and we moved freely around. My father was working for the Saudi Government. We spent some time in Kuwait, the rest in Jeddah, until I went to Cairo to school. Saudi Arabia was our home but I am also attached to Egypt, which is the country of my husband. After I retire, I will divide my time between Jeddah and Cairo.
We first met not long after you had come to UNFPA, at a meeting you organized with the Aspen Institute that I remember as a probing and honest reflection on how religious groups were engaging with reproductive health and rights. What was the context and what has happened since then?
UNFPA is in many ways the most controversial of the UN agencies and that was clear from the very start of my mandate. The Aspen meeting was an effort to reflect in a “safe space,” with colleagues and others, about how to address the accusations that were being hurled at us and at me personally & from both sides, left and right. In many ways Aspen set the course that I have followed ever since, to this meeting in Turin, the first ever United Nations training session focused on religion. The attacks were strongest during the Bush 43 administration years, strengthened by the determination and hostility of anti-family planning groups, but we have been attacked all the time, including by feminist groups that fear that UNFPA has “sold out.” Some of the attacks continue at present, though we have a supportive US administration under President Obama.
Do these attacks come from different countries or just the United States?
They are just from the United States. And they are much stronger during Republican administrations. They follow a clear pattern. Each recent Republican administration has withdrawn United States funding from UNFPA, basing the decision on what is known as the "Kemp Kasten Amendment" which was enacted to ensure that no US money goes to any organizations that participates in the management of coercive population policies. The issue is that UNFPA works in China, and China is considered by some in Congress and the US administration (when there is a Republican President), to be subject to the Kemp Kasten Amendment. UNFPA’s work in China has been reviewed many times, and always with the conclusion that UNFPA has a positive influence on China’s policies. The Bush administration sent a team to China that reached the same conclusion, but that made no difference. Throughout the tenure of President Bush, Congress appropriated funds for UNFPA but Bush would not release them. It all was the result of the influence of the religious right. Under a Democratic President, such as Bill Clinton and Obama, the President would release the funding, after deducting the small amounts that would be spent on the UNFPA program in China; we were requested to put the funds in a separate account and be held accountable for it.
Have you met these critics from the religious right?
I have never been able to sit down with them. They come to meetings but have not wanted to meet. Their narratives, and stories, are very far from the reality and my impression is that they do not want to listen to the evidence.
What about the Vatican and the Catholic Church? I remember that you and the Holy See’s representative to the United Nations met several times.
It is true that we did reach out to each other and had some friendly conversations, but the upshot was that we agreed to disagree. It is important to highlight that this was in the context of the Vatican representation at the United Nations and did not go beyond it. But it was significant because we had opened a channel that would allow us to communicate if times got tough. And in some ways it did decrease the public conflict, and lowered the temperature, at least in the context of the United Nations in New York. But on the ground, in many parts of the world, we work with the Catholic Church on common agendas such as ending violence against women.
And what about your relations with the women’s movements? I recall that they too were critical of UNFPA and especially the efforts to reach out to religious communities and leaders.
We have been working throughout to build relationships and partnerships with a wide range of groups, including but also going beyond the traditional feminist/reproductive health groups. It is important to broaden the base of understanding and support, to find ways in which we can support each other and build new partnerships. There is so much work to be done and all efforts are needed. So as we have traditional strategic relations with the reproductive health civil society organizations, we extended our reach to the faith-based organizations that deliver services and that accept the ICPD Programme of Action. Today, there are over 400 faith-based groups that form the Global Network of Faith-based Organizations for Population and Development.
But there are still groups that have doubts about UNFPA’s commitment and approach. We continue to try to reach out to them. And there is even resistance, to some extent, within UNFPA about the focus on culture and religion, and fears that it means an erosion of UNFPA’s commitment to human rights. Which, absolutely, it does not. We have to reach out but we need to reach out in the right way. By dealing with cultural values and religious beliefs, our aim remains to promote human rights. It is never to accept the status quo or the harmful practices but rather to expand the reach of the human rights agenda.
In some respects, I see the women’s movement as going through a generational shift. There is the older women’s movement & my age group. They were the ones who were the pioneers and who led the movement through the demanding and difficult years of opening the road for the rights of women. . In many ways with the proliferation of groups and a changing global context, there is a wider variety of advocates and points of view today. While there are some groups that do criticize UNFPA on various grounds, there is a certain level of agreement.
Working with feminist NGOs is strategic for UNFPA but we had to reach agreement that UNFPA and the civil society are not and cannot be the same. Each has its own mandate and perimeters for action. And we reach a healthy division of labor and cooperation. This very clear in the strong and strategic relationship between UNFPA and International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). We work together and closely in areas that are common to both of us. But each of us has its own mandate. There are some things that we, UNFPA, cannot address and discuss; at the same time there are things that the women’s groups can address less effectively, such as working with member states. There is a de facto division of labor.
Can you give some examples?
Abortion is the most controversial topic. We, UNFPA, are mandated to consider abortion within the context of public health, but never as a right as some NGOs do. That is a clear parameter from the ICPD Programme of Action, the famous and much contested clause 8.25 which set out the position towards abortion. It basically states that abortion should never be a form of family planning and that when family planning services are available and accessible then that lowers abortions. It also states that abortion is a national issue to be decided by national laws and legislations. And where it is legal, it should be done under good medical conditions. In the ICPD five-year review, the governments in the UN General Assembly agreed that women who have undergone abortion should be treated with compassion. Some of the women’s groups & like IPPF (International Planned Parenthood Federation) and Mary Stopes International & approach the issue differently, and they view abortion in the context of a woman’s right to choose. So, though we have many common interests, we deal with them differently.
What about FGC (Female Genital Cutting)?
There is more consensus on that issue and there is a huge network that is engaged, mostly focused on Africa and South Asia. It is much less controversial. And there are success stories. Senegal is most often cited as a success, and women’s groups have been part of that success. But it is also true that the change there owes much to a network of religious men who argued that the practice was not religiously justified. But this is an issue that highlights that even when laws are in place that is not enough. The issue is implementation. Decisions are made at the family and the community level. Women who do the cutting have both economic and social incentives and so they need to be re-skilled in order to abandon this occupation. In both Senegal and Mauritania some of the cutters have become important advocates for ending the practice.
In Egypt, the problem has been affected by a high degree of medicalization of the practice (it is often done by doctors). Thus death is no longer so much part of the arguments against the practice. So human rights has to be part of the advocacy, and that is a harder battle. The practice is declining, but slowly. It will take a long time to bring it to an end. But it is significant that there are Muslim and Coptic groups that are dealing with the issue, advocating strongly across religious boundaries to end the practice. They are working at the community level.
Egypt is a good example to use in trying to understand the complexities of the practice, because it makes clear that the practice is not about the level of education of the population. It persists in well-educated, middle-income families. It is about contracts among families and about a traditional logic that to those concerned makes sense. It is about the cultural value attached to circumcision. So the discourse about the issue has had to move up to the level of human rights and, more concretely, linking it to maternal health. And that dialogue is more difficult. Religious leaders have to be brought in more actively. They have avoided the issue, out of fear of saying too much or out of ignorance. But they are coming on board much more than before.
But at the meeting in Istanbul in October 2008 where we & UNFPA & brought together faith-based groups from around the world, FGC was an area where many indicated their willingness to work on ending it. Violence against women and children was another.
Thus there are some areas where it is logical that we can work together with a wide range of religious leaders and women’s groups & violence against women and FGC among them. Child marriage might also fall into this category. And there are other more controversial issues where we need to give some more space and time and show some mutual respect for our differences.
Where are you seeing the strongest leadership on women’s issues among religious leaders? Can you cite some you might describe as heroes?
There are strong leaders in all regions and all religious traditions. If I am to name a few, I might highlight some courageous leaders in Latin America. There is, for example, a Jesuit priest from Colombia who is part of our network, a medical doctor who works in the Magdalena Medio region, which is volatile and where there is much violence. He coordinates a reproductive health program and does amazing work with young women, working vigorously against violence and prejudice against women. He spoke publicly about his work at meetings in New York. In Syria, there is a Muslim clergyman who is a very vocal advocate within the HIV/AIDS network. The leaders of Al Azhar [the prominent Muslim center of learning in Cairo; UNFPA has supported an International Center on Population Studies there for 20 years] have taken important positions in some areas, though their role is somewhat less central than it was in the past. Their publications are good and have influence. Gamal Serour is an OB/GYN, a professor there; he is the Director of the Al Azhar International Center on Population and he is active on reproductive health; though he is not clergy he is influential. Mahmoud Fathalla wrote an important book with Rebecca Cook on human rights and reproductive health. He can speak authoritatively about religion as well as the right to reproductive health.
Do you see either strong religious leaders or opponents on the issue of child marriage? That surely is a topic where the role of religion is clear and marked.
I cannot think of individuals whom I would put in either category, though that it a question that is worth pursuing.
I use two lines of argument on these kinds of topics, topics that relate quintessentially to social practices that are bound up with religion and culture. The first is to highlight the selective use of scripture: while the Prophet’s wife Aisha was young and many use this an example to justify what is now known as child marriage, his first wife, Khadija was older than him when they were married and he was working for her. It is important to look deeper at religious texts and to be aware of when and how they are interpreted, and to place that understanding into the context of the time, when that religion as a whole promoted the dignity of the human being. Second, there have been important changes since the scriptures were written. In Islam, the principle is that whatever is related to worship does not change, but what concerns everyday life can and does change and we can see around us in Muslim countries that change has taken place. We can go back to the role of women in early Muslim communities and see that the teachings of the Prophet were an advance on the traditions of the times. Also many practices related to everyday life have changed, from banking to travel, to economic relations and how they are conducted, to contractual arrangements, etc. So the present time has brought many changes and the Muslim countries have adjusted to it. Why do some want to keep issues related to women as static and do not change?
I believe the basic question is whether women are valued enough as individuals with rights and obligations. In Islam, a woman has an independent financial status and she has her own money, in her own bank account that is not controlled by her husband. This financial status means also that she is a recognized legal being; she is an independent entity and she is not an appendage of her husband or male relatives. We need to separate one issue from another. The Koranic statement that men are responsible for women was based on the realities of the times, and depended on economic power realities. Now, when they share in the ownership of the house and when women are often breadwinners, the condition is no longer fulfilled. It comes back to traditions that underpin social norms.
What to your mind distinguishes men who have supported women’s rights and made their issues a real priority?
Sometimes it is men with daughters who take the lead. They have experienced the barriers their daughters have faced and thus appreciate what they represent. For others, the willingness to lead comes from an appreciation of how stereotypes have affected them.
In our region, my father’s generation was in some ways more progressive than the generation that is now in power. They grew up in a period of colonialism, and freedom and liberty were very much in the air. The environment was political and there was a mood that encouraged taking risks. People were looking for a different quality of life. Today, it is easier to take things for granted. Going to school is no longer a statement, nor does it require a special effort.
As you look back on UNFPA’s experience, what do you see as the most telling success stories?
I often speak of Iran, both because it has indeed achieved remarkable success in family planning, but also because it seems such an improbable case. It is thus particularly interesting. The Deputy Minister of Health recently came to a meeting of faith-based institutions to narrate the story. Iran took clergy and others to the 1994 Cairo meeting on Population and Development. They had a lot to say on abortion but also on many other issues. They returned determined to act. They made a conscious decision to begin family planning programs with the educated middle class, because they wanted to be sure of success and believed those communities would be more accepting of change. Then they expanded the program to more communities and made family planning a state policy. Iran has become one of the most advanced countries in terms of reproductive health. They have good education and testing programs, including for HIV/AIDS. There is extensive reproductive health and family relations education for young couples (once they are engaged & that is the traditional and religious part) and the basic message conveyed is that they need to learn to talk to each other about these issues. They also have well developed needle exchange programs among others to prevent HIV in prisons, which implies there are same-sex relations.
Bangladesh is another country that is doing well in changing social norms and for family planning specifically.
The 1994 meeting in Cairo was a watershed event, together with Beijing, in terms of encouraging public discussion of previously taboo topics. Much later, I remember well a meeting in Dublin about HIV, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke about condoms, saying, with a twinkle in his eye, “Sometimes God needs a little help”.
What are your plans after you leave UNFPA at the end of December?
I emphasize that I am not looking for a job! In Jeddah, I plan to do some volunteer work for civil society organizations, especially those that work with women. There are two that have human rights origins and that are doing a lot on family issues. I hope to be able to contribute. In Cairo (I will divide my time between the two cities), I hope to lead a quieter life, reading and writing. I have already assembled what I call my “retirement library.”
One topic I am eager to pursue is to pick up again on the themes I explored for my PhD thesis, which I finished in 1973. I was studying English literature then with cultural anthropology as a sub-specialization. The theme was essentially the stereotypes of the Moor in English Renaissance drama. I explored some 30 plays that had Moors as characters. Othello is the best known, but there are many others. But the treatment of them all is essentially derogatory, whether they are kings, generals, or confidants. So I asked, where did these negative images came from? I found I had to look far back. The Church writings of the Middle Ages were obviously one source and it was around the image of Prophet Muhammad. The adjectives included ugly, bloodthirsty, and not to be trusted. The Chronicle of the Crusades and the writings about the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain contributed to this negative image. But there were other sources. Trade took place between Europe and North Africa, and there were travelers. Moors also appeared in Spanish, French and Italian literature, which found its way to Spenser’s Fairie Queen, which led to Shakespeare and all the other dramatists of that period.
That was my thesis. Since 9/11, I have picked up perhaps 100 bestsellers at airports and bookstores. It is stunning in reading them to realize that the images of Muslims have barely changed. The images have a deep history, and have persisted over time. My hypothesis is that racism can remain and fester over generations and centuries unless it is confronted and talked about and eventually understood and dealt with. Thus the deeply rooted prejudices were scratched by September 11 and came out in force. Historical racism is always negative.
As you look back, why do you think your father was prepared to break with tradition and to support his daughter, against the conventions of the times?
There are plenty of negative images of fathers and patriarchy. In some telling of history, all fathers are bad in some quarters. For me, however, it was my father above all who supported my choices and made it possible to break the ceiling. He opened doors for me. Maybe my father was a dreamer, who always believed that all human beings are born free and that they must develop their full potentials. And within that, he felt that I must also exercise my right to develop. It is really his basic Islamic belief that it is his duty to equip his children with knowledge and they can choose their lives. He always told us, sons and daughters, that he will not be able to leave wealth for us but he will give us education and we can do with it what we want.
So my second book will be on "Fathers Matter" about fathers who were critical in breaking the glass ceilings for their daughters. I have met so many women from the Muslim countries but also from other countries where the fathers were the protectors, the motivators and the courageous decision makers.
And the third has a working title: "Mothers Matter Even More," because it is often mothers who saw their unfilled dreams come true through their empowerment of their daughters, and pushed and encouraged the fathers, who are the patriarchs of the family, to open the doors! This will give me a chance to celebrate my parents.