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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 22:50 GMT
Women's vital peace role
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid - the first Saudi head of a UN agency
By Anna McDermott

Women have a fundamental part to play in fostering peace in the wake of the 11 September attacks and the ensuing war in Afghanistan, a United Nations female boss believes.

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid is the first Saudi head of a UN agency. She is undersecretary-general and executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

Mrs Obaid says women have a key role in rebuilding a sense of community.

She told BBC News Online: "Women are not only victims in times of conflict, they are peacemakers who, in taking care of their families, cross geographical, tribal and geopolitical lines.

"Their work at community level is an essential part of nation-building. It is women who try to bridge differences and create the building blocks of reconciliation", she said.

She hopes that the terrorist attacks will not increase polarisation, but strengthen people's sense of togetherness.

"Let us see the only way to survive is to respect the rights of others within a cultural context."

Respecting traditions

In her home country, Mrs Obaid, a Muslim, respects the rules which govern female behaviour and adheres to the customs when she is there.

She said: "When I go to Saudi I wear a veil to cover my hair and wear long clothes.


It is women who try to bridge differences and create the building blocks of reconciliation

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid

"This doesn't bother me so long as women can go to work and school and be socially active.

"There are no Saudi laws that allow me to drive. Wherever I go I respect the traditions beginning with my own traditions and my own people", she explained.

"I understand the changing context - in all the Gulf areas and in many Muslim countries, no national context is frozen in time".

Mrs Obaid ascribes her success to her parents' enlightened attitude and governmental support, driven by her unswerving commitment to women's human rights.

Importance of education

She believes education is the key to development, benefiting herself from what she describes as the Islamic commitment to learning.

"The first word in the Koran is 'read' and it is an order to every Muslim. The most important beginning in my life was my parents' position on girls' education", she said.

When she was three she went to a madrassa because there was no other girls' school in Saudi then.

At the age of seven, she was sent to boarding school in Cairo until she was 17.

Afghan women in traditional dress
Afghan women must be part of their country's reconstruction

"It was very difficult for my parents to send me away but I never saw it as rejection, I saw it as an act of love", Mrs Obaid said.

She went on to get a doctorate with the first Saudi scholarship for a woman to study in the US.

She has two daughters in England, one a doctor and the other an architect, who were brought up proud to be Arabs and Muslims.

The Saudi Government did not interfere when she joined the UN in 1975, but endorsed her nomination for her present post.

Re-building Afghanistan

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid wants women to be involved at the planning stages of Afghanistan's reconstruction.

"We hope all this investment will bring about not only girls' education but also bring women into the political discussion.

"Women know very well what they want. The men have to recognise the women's dreams and support them."

Mrs Obaid says the UNFPA wants to expand aid to cover "more women, more time and more geography."

"The Afghan clinics and hospitals I visited in 1997 were in a sad shape with little equipment or medication.

"In one women's hospital none of the women workers were paid for a year.

"They had almost no anaesthesia and only gas lamps.

"Women like that need to be recognised as they will be the cornerstone in re-building Afghanistan."

See also:

17 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan women shoulder war woes
16 Oct 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Afghan women's life in the shadows
02 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
World numbers 'may peak by 2100'
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