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A Brave New Role for Thoraya Obaid, Former UNFPA Chief


Thoraya Obaid
Thoraya Obaid, an American-educated Saudi, has been named one of 30 women appointees to Saudi Arabia's traditionally all-male Shura Council, a government advisory body. Obaid is a former head of the UN's Population Fund. Photo: WFDA

The New Year began with a big step for Saudi women when King Abdullah appointed 30 of them to the kingdom’s traditionally all-male Shura Council, an advisory body that serves as a pale imitation of a legislature in the kingdom, which has no parliament.

One of the new advisers is Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the former executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, and before that a career UN official with a record as an international advocate for women. She was among the intellectuals who contributed to the first stunning Arab Human Development Report in 2002, which noted, among other bold conclusions, that the Middle East was wasting the talent of half its people. Until recently, she was board chairman of the Women’s Learning Partnership, an international nongovernmental organization based in Bethesda, Md., which promotes women and their rights in mainly Muslim-majority countries.

When Kofi Annan, secretary-general at the UN at the time, named her executive director of the Population Fund in October 2000 (she took over on Jan. 1 the next year), Obaid turned to him at a news conference and said: “Today, all Saudi women are recognizing that you broke the ceiling one more time for Saudi women, and we thank you for that.” She stepped into the top job from her earlier role as director of the fund’s division covering Arab nations and Europe. In that capacity, she had been part of two high-level missions to Afghanistan under the Taliban to try to protect women there.

Obaid, born in Baghdad in 1945 to a Saudi journalist and Arabic classicist, Ahmed Obaid, whom she described in a 2001 interview with me for The New York Times as something of a dissident for his era, and a mother, Aisha Khatib, who with her husband decided to send their daughter at age 6 to the American College for Girls in Cairo. Thoraya Obaid stayed at the private school through 12th grade.

“It was quite a sacrifice for my father,” she said. “I think he sacrificed for my education throughout his life.” He told his children, she said, that he was not rich, and that his legacy would be their education. From the American college, which also nurtured a generation of Egyptian feminists, Obaid went to Mills College in California and then to Wayne State University in Michigan, where she received master’s and doctorate degrees in literature and social anthropology.

Obaid learned to move comfortably between Western and Arab-Muslim cultures through her education and more than three-decade career at the UN. It is a skill, and an outlook, that has served her well globally, but those who know her question how she will maneuver in the closed society of Saudi Arabia, where restrictions on women are still severe by international standards. At the Population Fund, she was committed to the policy that women should have the right to say no to sex, certainly to unsafe sex, and she led a campaign against female genital mutilation.

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When she was appointed to the 150-member Shura, Obaid said in an interview with the Saudi Gazette, a privately owned newspaper in Jeddah, that she was always alert to cultural settings as she moved from place to place and factored them into her work in family planning, women’s rights, the battle to stem HIV-AIDS and the problems of contemporary youth. “Unless culture is taken into consideration in development, efforts cannot succeed,” she said in the interview with the Saudi newspaper. “With difficult social issues, you have to understand the connection between what people believe and how they function and then try to bring the issues of human rights closer to the issues of culture.”

Obaid also told the Gazette that even with cultural sensitivity as a guide, “the perspective of women is integral to discussions” and cannot be viewed in isolation from “the main progress of society.” She said she hoped to reach out to male members of the Shura (from whom the women will be strictly segregated at meetings and even entering and leaving the building).

“There are key issues such as the employment of young people, who constitute 60 percent of the population under the age of 30, and income for households headed by women,” she said. “We need to have our brothers involved in discussions and the formulation of recommendations because we all form one unit of citizens of our country.”

Isobel Coleman, director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a specialist on the Arab world, wrote on the Middle East Voices site of the Voice of America after the appointment of women to the Saudi Shura that King Abdullah pledged in 2011 that he would take this step, and that in 2015 women would be able to run and vote in an election. The naming of women to the Shura finally announced this year, Coleman wrote, “is a sign of King Abdullah’s seriousness about incrementally increasing women’s participation.”

“Despite the limitations of the Shura Council, the appointed women have their work cut out for them,” Coleman wrote, referring to the reputation of Obaid and another new council member and women’s rights advocate, Thuraya Arrayed. “With female council members like these, this mixed-gender Shura Council may well pave the way to greater opportunities for Saudi women, however incrementally.”

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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