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Knowledge Is Essential for Being a Good Muslim
Maha Akeel, Arab News


JEDDAH, 4 January 2007 — Dr. Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said that the issue of health and education for women has to be addressed as a most critical development priority at the regional and local levels. During a recent visit to Jeddah she spoke with Arab News about efforts by the UNFPA to bring its expertise and activities closer to local communities and mobilize resources for women’s rights.

“Now we have a new strategy just adopted by the UNFPA Executive Board, made up of 32 countries by rotation,” said Obaid. “It has many aspects; one aspect is to establish and strengthen at the regional level, sub-regional and country levels networks of technical institutions dealing with demography, maternal health and family planning so that they can provide the technical support requested by the governments and civil society, with an eventual aim to be self sufficient. Basically, we would like to have the global level focus on setting standards while at the regional and the country level we would naturally focus on the people themselves who know what they want and how to do it.”

The other aspect is structural, moving the geographic division from New York to the regions to be close to the countries and work with regional institutions. The UNFPA opened its Oman office three years ago; eventually it will be a sub-regional office to the main Arab office in Egypt, which is planned for next year.

“In Africa, there will be one regional office and two sub-regional offices,” said Dr. Thoraya. “This will allow greater dialogue with the member state and improved and efficient support to national capacity building.” Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Central Asia will each receive a regional and sub-regional office.

The UNFPA works in two areas: One is in supporting member states in developing their national systems for data collection and analysis, census and surveys. “We focus on anything related to population data to help governments make the correct plans and decisions based on solid information,” said Dr. Thoraya.

The other program undertaken by UNFPA is reproductive health. “Under it are all issues related to maternal health especially decreasing maternal death due to pregnancy and child birth, family planning, prevention of HIV among women and youth, dealing with impact of violence against women and promoting social responsibility by mobilizing people to deal with the issue, and also promote girls education. We work with governments upon their invitation to establish and expand family planning in the sense of spacing, not population control, as some might still think,” said Dr. Thoraya.

Some of these issues are fairly sensitive in some cultures and have to be addressed delicately. “Culture, religion, social practices and values impact greatly on how people understand such delicate issues, but basically I say that we all pray for reproduction and we all pray for health; so when they come together, it should be a double blessing that is promoted by all cultures and religions,” said Dr. Thoraya.

In response to the needs of the member states and the nature of the agenda, UNFPA established a program called “Gender, Culture and Human Rights.” “We promote working with local communities for them to be able to articulate their own views and how they can make the necessary changes, for example, to ensure women have access to a qualified attendance at birth or to emergency obstetric care to meet delivery obstructions, to reduce violence against women and not to force girls into marriage,” said Dr. Thoraya.

Basically, the program is to “empower communities to bring the change themselves and not bring the change from outside. That is why we work with a network of religious and community leaders, because people trust them and listen to them,” she added.

For example, in Pakistan for three years, the UNFPA supported the government’s efforts to hold a conference on Islam and population issues. “I personally attended a meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to meet religious leaders who had completed a course on reproductive health so that they can promote correct practices among their communities,” she said.

When it comes to women’s health there is much to be done in Muslim countries — and most of that depends on political will. “It is sad for me as a Muslim woman to say that many of the low indicators of women’s health are in Muslim countries. This sad state has nothing to do with Islam, it is a mix of social practices and customs, sometimes wrongly attributed to religious beliefs,” she said. “The most basic of human rights for women is to give birth without dying.”

The UNFPA, she said, is eager to work with influential organizations like the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on women’s health issues. The Ten-Year Program of Action of the OIC launched at the Makkah Summit in 2005 has emphasized the empowerment of women politically, economically and socially and included provisions on improving the health and education of women and addressing the issues of violence and abuse. The organization held its First Ministerial Conference on Women’s Role in the Development of OIC Member States in November 2006 and will be holding its second women’s conference this year in Egypt. “For sure we can work together with the OIC in carrying programs that have progressive interpretations for women. The OIC is a political organization but has the moral authority that can bring such a dialogue around on the position of Islam and women in the 21st century in the correct way. We already have many recommendations and don’t need more. What we need is how to implement them to the benefit of women and therefore to the benefit of society. We need to remember that women deliver not only babies, but also services at home and in the society,” said Dr. Thoraya.

As a Muslim and a Saudi woman, Dr. Thoraya is often confronted in the West with questions about the status of women in Islam given the barrage of misinformation and misrepresentation of Islam in the Western media, especially with regard to women and more especially Saudi women.

“I usually tell them I came out of this culture and look at me,” said Dr. Thoraya, who was among the first generation of Saudi women who went to the US for her college degree. She was the first Saudi woman to go on a scholarship, which was in 1963 when she was only 17, and the first to earn a PhD from the US. “My father used to say that a good base of faith and for being a good Muslim is knowledge and he insisted that girls got educated just like boys. I use this argument with them and they understand it, but still the media presentation of negative stories attracts more attention than stories of positive development.”

However, it cannot be denied that there are some practices and discrimination committed against women in the name of Islam. “Lots of it has to do with the interpretation of Islam which is done by humans. If we take the spirit of Islam that honored women and changed their status and gave them rights, including the very progressive independent financial status, it should be applied in all the interpretations. I consider any form of denying women the rights given to them by Islam because of specific interpretations a form of ‘waad’ (infanticide) of girls, which was practiced in ‘jahiliya’ (pre-Islam) period. While at that time girls were killed physically, today by preventing girls and women from their social, cultural and economic rights, society is practicing another form of ‘waad,’ killing their spirit. Just as Islam honored women, so interpretations have to be in the spirit of honoring women. We always say that Islam is the religion for every time and place; therefore, it should be able to change whatever relates to ‘al-muaamalat’ (the things of daily life) and it certainly remains constant in what deals with ‘al-ibadat’ (issues of belief and faith).”

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