Obaid, Thoraya


Obaid, Thoraya
▪ 2002

      On Jan. 1, 2001, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid became the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the first Saudi national to head a UN agency. The UNFPA, the largest internationally funded source of population assistance, actively promoted equality between the sexes and universal education and health care, especially better reproductive health care for women. Its campaigns to battle AIDS, expand the availability of reproductive information and services for adolescents, and end violence against women, including female genital mutilation, met with resistance in many conservative areas of the world, especially those that were reluctant to address such concomitant issues as homosexuality, teen sexuality, and women's rights. It was believed that Obaid, a Muslim woman (like her predecessor, Nafis Sadik of Pakistan), would be sensitive to Muslim concerns and serve as a role model in Muslim countries where the status of women was still low. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where women could not appear in public unless covered from head to toe, were not permitted to drive, and could not travel without written permission from male relatives, Obaid's success and visibility contributed to changes in government policy, including an agreement by the government to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Indeed, the Saudi government fully supported Obaid's candidacy for the UNFPA position. Obaid herself had expressed the hope that she could, from her own personal experience, tell less-developed countries, especially in Muslim societies, that educating women, allowing them to work, and enabling them to make choices about their lives were Islamic rather than un-Islamic in nature.

      Obaid was born on March 2, 1945, in Baghdad, Iraq. Her parents were devout Muslims, and they took as a literal command the instruction in the Qurʾan's very first surah— “Read.” They believed in educating their daughter as well as their sons and enrolled her in an Islamic school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, when she was three. Because education for girls was limited in Saudi Arabia at the time, Obaid was sent in 1951 to the American College for Girls in Cairo. She later became the first Saudi woman to receive a government scholarship to study in the United States. She earned a B.A. (1966) in English literature from Mills College, Oakland, Calif., and M.A. (1968) and Ph.D. (1974) degrees from Wayne State University, Detroit. In 1975 Obaid began working for the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, and she became that agency's deputy executive secretary in 1993. In 1998 she was appointed director of the UNFPA's Division for Arab States and Europe. Her 25 years of experience at the UN and her demonstrated commitment to empowering women moved UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to describe her as “the ideal candidate” to head the UNFPA.

Amy R. Tao

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Universalium. 2010.

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