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Navigating the Turbulent Waters of Religion and Women's Rights: An Interview with Thoraya Obaid

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THORAYA OBAID
AP Photo/Alastair Grant

Thoraya Obaid, a proud Muslim and Saudi Arabian citizen, just completed ten years as Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations agency that seems always to be in the cross hairs of religious controversy. A passionate advocate both for women's rights and for engaging with culture and religion in working for social change, Dr. Obaid reflected on challenges behind and those ahead.

You set out a decade ago to get the United Nations to recognize culture and religion as critical elements in social change. What inspired this rare vision?

I credit my parents. My father was a devout Muslim who took very seriously the first principle in the Quran which is about learning. Though he was largely self-educated, he saw knowledge as a central precept of Islam. He was ahead of his time, an independent thinker. He insisted that his daughters get a good education and he never interfered with my life choices, believing in me as a capable and responsible person.

The Programme of Action adopted at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development is about reproductive health as a human right, an agenda that is culturally value-loaded. It must be understood in that context, building on what is positive in each culture and society. I am a living example of what that means: a Muslim who treasures learning and pursued my dreams, a woman who decided myself who to marry and when to have my children.

When Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the United Nations interviewed me for the position at UNFPA and asked what I thought I could bring, I said I was absolutely convinced that we must address culture and religion if we were to succeed in changing the position of women. I was very clear about it from my first speech to the UNFPA board, in September 2000.

We first met soon after you came to UNFPA, at a meeting to reflect about religious groups and reproductive health and rights. What was the context?

It was clear from the day I started at UNFPA that it was the most controversial of the UN agencies. I needed to reflect in a "safe space", with colleagues and others, about how to address the accusations being hurled at us and at me personally, from both sides, left and right. 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". We are still attacked, though we now have a supportive US administration under President Obama.

Do these attacks come from different countries or just the United States?

Just the United States. 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 President Bush's tenure, Congress appropriated funds for UNFPA but Bush would not release them. It all was the result of the influence of the religious right. Democratic Presidents (Clinton and Obama) release the funding, after deducting the small amounts that would be spent on UNFPA's China program; we are asked 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? You met several times with the Holy See's representative to the United Nations.

We did reach out to each other and had some friendly conversations, but the upshot was that we agreed to disagree. This was in the context of the Vatican representation at the United Nations and did not go beyond, but it was significant because we opened a channel that would allow us to communicate if times got tough. And in some ways it lowered the temperature, at least in the New York U.N. context. But on the ground, in many parts of the world, we work all the time with the Catholic Church on common agendas such as ending violence against women.

And what about your relations with the women's movements?

We are working 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 and find ways to support each other. There is so much work to be done and all efforts are needed. But some groups still have doubts about UNFPA's commitment and approach and some are uneasy specifically about our effort to work with faith groups, fearing that it signals an erosion in our commitment to human rights. It absolutely does not. Today, over 400 faith based groups form the Global Network of Faith-based Organizations for Population and Development. By dealing with cultural values and religious beliefs, we aim to promote human rights, never to accept the status quo or harmful practices but rather to expand the reach of the human rights agenda.

The women's movement is going through a generational shift. My age group is part of the early women's movement, the pioneers who led the movement through the demanding early years. With the proliferation of groups and a changing global context, there is a wider variety of advocates and points of view today. We also need to appreciate that UNFPA and civil society are not and cannot be the same. Each has its own mandate and perimeters for action so we need a healthy division of labor. There are some things that we, UNFPA, cannot address and discuss, while some things women's groups can address less effectively.

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 states that abortion should never be a form of family planning and that when family planning services are available and accessible that lowers abortions. Abortion is a national issue to be decided by national laws and legislations. Where it is legal, it should be done under good medical conditions. Some women's groups approach the issue differently, viewing abortion in the context of a woman's right to choose. So, though we have many common interests, we deal with them differently.

Thus there are areas where we can work together with a wide range of religious leaders and women's groups - violence against women, child marriage, and female genital cutting are among them. On the more controversial issues, we need to give some more space and time and show mutual respect for our differences.

What are your plans after UNFPA?

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. 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.

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