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By Nick Taylor

About this blog: This blog is a place for conversation about books. I post reviews of what I'm reading--lots of contemporary fiction, but also classics and the occasional work of narrative nonfiction. I am always looking for new books to read, so ...  (More)

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Champion of Choice by Cathleen Miller

Uploaded: Jan 1, 2014
Miller, Cathleen. Champion of Choice. (University of Nebraska Press, 2013).

I've been busy reading a fascinating new biography, Champion of Choice, about the Pakistani obstetrician and women's-rights activist Nafis Sadik. The biographer, Cathleen Miller, is a Bay Area local and a colleague of mine at San José State (and If it strikes you as a conflict of interest that I review books by authors I know, please read my explanation from a few posts back).

I know what you're thinking? Who is Nafis Sadik, and why does she deserve a 460-page biography? Why haven't I heard of her if she's so important? This strikes me as one of the fundamental problems with biographies: the ones that get the most attention (reviews in newspapers, plum placement in bookstores) tend to be about people we already know. Do we really need another biography of Abraham Lincoln? Probably not, but I'm sure there are plenty still to be written. In my mind, the truly valuable biographies bring to our attention people whose exemplary lives have somehow escaped public notice. Dr. Nafis Sadik is this sort of person, and Champion of Choice is this kind of book.

Nafis Sadik was born in 1929 to an unusual Muslim family in British India -- unusual because her father believed that it was important to educate girls, and he made sure his daughters received a proper education. At that time, women in most of the developing world were treated like livestock: girls were married off in their early teens, sometimes before they reached physical maturity, and women were expected to produce children continuously from their first period until menopause -- or until they died in childbirth. Growing up in India, Dr. Sadik saw all this first-hand, and when independence came in 1947 and the subcontinent was partitioned by faith, the young Muslim doctor found herself in a position of considerable influence in the new nation of Pakistan. She began a successful family-planning program, attracting attention from public-health officials all over the world, and was eventually lured the UN. She joined the fledgling UN Population Fund as its chief medical advisor and went on to become its director -- the first female head of a UN agency.

Biographer Miller argues, convincingly, that no person alive has done more to improve the quality of life on earth than Nafis Sadik. I know this is a big claim, but listen to these statistics: In 1970, just before Dr. Sadik joined the Population Fund, the average family size worldwide was six children. In 2000 it was three. During the same period, infant mortality in many countries dropped by four-fifths. Maternal mortality decreased by thirty-four percent. The study period coincides almost precisely with Dr. Sadik's tenure at the UN. Call it a coincidence if you dare, but read this book first.

One more item of note: Miller intersperses the chapters about Dr. Sadik with anecdotes from women around the world -- ordinary women whose lives exemplify the struggles Dr. Sadik has worked to address. We meet heroin-addicted Russian prostitutes, survivors of the genocide in Kosovo, girls brought from India to California as sex slaves, and many, many more. These stories provide color and texture but they also serve to place Dr. Sadik's story in context. They help us remember that although Dr. Sadik was by the end of her career one of the most powerful and influential women in the world, with a million frequent-flyer miles and a corner office in a New York skyscraper, she saw herself first and foremost as an obstetrician. She may be remembered with a plaque in Manhattan, but her real legacy will be written in the stories of women everywhere.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, a resident of another community,
on Jan 2, 2014 at 9:26 am

I am Thoraya Ahmed Obaid who followed Nafis Sadik as Executive Director of UNFPA. She was my supervisor for two years from December 1998 to December 2000 when I was Director, Division for Arab States and Europe and she was my "informal" adviser and friend through my tenure as Executive Director from 2001 - 2010. I can attest to who Nafis Sadik is - she was my role model when I was a young professional in the UN Social and Economic Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA) in the seventies and eighties. She was who she is - serious, strict in her demands for delivering on our work, tough on those who did not have their heart where the lives of women matter, gracious to people, remembers the names of all her staff and their families and asks about them. I used to say that behind that professional behaviour there is a real kind heart. And this combination is what moved her throughout her life - feeling for the women who never had the chance she had to make decisions about her life, to determine her education, to chose her husband, to determine her career, and to be the the Executive Director of UNFPA and the first female as Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations. One picture stands in my mind of Nafis: she had just returned from Addis Ababa after visiting The Addis Ababa Fistulae Center and as she spoke about the situation of women, she cried. That is exactly what Nafis was about: a big heart that acts through firm determination to make a difference in women\'s lives. I was honoured to have worked with her and was extremely happy to become her friend.

Posted by Nick Taylor, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 2, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Nick Taylor is a registered user.

Dr. Obaid, I am honored to have your comment on this blog and grateful for your memories of Dr. Sadik. Readers, Dr. Obaid's work as Dr. Sadik's successor at UNFPA is described in Miller's biography.

Posted by Anjum Niaz, a resident of another community,
on Jan 5, 2014 at 5:36 am

Congratulations to Nick for such a readable review on Dr Sadik book. I am a Pakistani journalist living in New Jersey. As a reporter for 30 years for Pakistan's leading English language newspaper, DAWN, I have interviewed Dr Sadik a couple of times as well as covered her international conferences. She does us proud, standing out as always, the star at such events. People respect her professionalism but are touched by her humility and grace. This is a rare combination and not many who manage to reach the top are always mindful of such humility.

I agree with Nick's comment: "the truly valuable biographies bring to our attention people whose exemplary lives have somehow escaped public notice. Dr. Nafis Sadik is this sort of person, and Champion of Choice is this kind of book." I feel that the book deserves to be placed along I am Malala in bookstores. No doubt the 16 year old Malala deserves our praise for challenging the Taliban who tried to kill her, but let us not forget that women like Dr Sadik are our heroes too! She was a role model for women not only in Pakistan but all across the globe as a spokesperson for women rights almost half a century ago!

Posted by ManiaceJames, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Jan 21, 2014 at 1:40 am

ManiaceJames is a registered user.

I have read Champion of Choice and in that book it is shown that if a women has make strong determination they can do anything.I suggest every women should read this book once as they will get to know many things that is needed for them.
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