Meet Farah Obaidullah

Interview by Eve Isambourg

We all have dreams. We all have heroes who inspire us to make our dreams come true, to overcome the challenges. Farah is one of those heroes.

Today we’re gonna meet someone, that won’t leave you untouched, a meeting that will encourage you to fight, for what you think is right.You’ll be inspired to follow your dreams, believe in your convictions just as she did.

Farah, no one can deny, you are an Ocean advocate and defender. And we think it is very inspiring. Can you tell us a bit more about why and how you’ve started to be that connected with the Ocean?

I have been passionate about the ocean since as far back as I remember. I grew up by the sea in the Netherlands and even as a very young child I would be drawn to the sea, whatever the weather! I felt humble and small next to the sea, it’s roaring waves instilling both a sense of fear and belonging in me. It angered me (at age 5) to see people littering on the beach. I knew then that this was harming our ocean. I would tell them off. After my first few years of living by the North Sea, I moved to Gabon, West Africa. Here, the sea was replaced by the warmer, clearer but more ferocious waters of the Atlantic Ocean. I would spend my weekends on the beach, exploring life in the mangroves, snorkelling in the shallow waters of the ocean and observing all kinds of animals from crabs and octopus to shoals of rays.

Eventually I returned back to Holland, to my hometown by the sea and as a teenager, aged 15, I secured my first summer job at the local aquarium. Whilst my experience at the aquarium was invaluable, I would say the biggest take away from that job was that all animals are deserving of our respect and are not meant to be kept in captivity. I went on to pursue my studies in (marine) science and after a few years of working as an environmental consultant, I directed my career towards the ocean. I have worked both on land and at sea around the world on a whole host of topics related to the protection of our ocean from campaigning to end whaling, pushing for protected areas at sea, promoting sustainable seafood, ending destructive fishing, exposing illegal fishing and highlighting slavery and labour abuse in fisheries. Anyway, I can talk about my connection to the ocean all day! In short, my passion has always been there and I never gave up my dreams of pursuing an ocean related career.

How it is to be a “woman” scientist nowadays?

I grew up in the 80s and 90s. My role models were mostly men. First and foremost, my father. My father is a scientist –  geophysicist, computer scientist, astronomer and mathematician! My father never stopped learning and instilled that sense of curiosity in me. In fact he is still learning at age 78! I was always encouraged to follow my dreams and, in particular, to pursue my scientific degrees. I was very privileged to attend international schools where girls were encouraged as much as boys to pursue science. My awareness around gender balance in science shifted when I went to University. Here, I noticed that most of my lecturers and indeed fellow students were men!

The answer to your question of what it is like to be a woman scientist nowadays is complex. I think overall things have improved for women in science, there are more of us pursuing scientific careers, and in some places there are more women than men enrolling in scientific courses. But as we increasingly start to fill scientific positions we are also increasingly becoming aware of the limitations, challenges and obstacles that we, as women, still uniquely face. Everything ranging from gender bias, feeling isolated, to facing a slew of inappropriate behaviours and having to adapt ourselves to a system largely designed by men for men. All of this can stifle our contributions.

I believe though that as with anything, progress only comes about when we encounter challenge and then work to overcome it. Societies aren’t born perfect, just like no one individual is perfect. We spend our entire lives improving ourselves and so it is for our civilisations. Women are now entering almost every space in society and with that comes new challenges and therefore improvements, including in the world of science.

“Women, Equality, Change, Vision, Empowerment, Healthy Oceans, Unique …”, those are the words we find in the description of Women4Oceans website, and we think it is amazing. How did the idea of that community appear to you?

My professional career spans almost twenty years. Most of that time has been dedicated to the ocean. The urgency with which we must act to reverse the crisis facing our ocean is very to clear to me. It is no longer enough to leave the job of saving our ocean to only a handful of organizations. We must all come in to action if we are to have a chance at protecting, not just what we love, but what we need to survive – our blue planet.

Through all my travels, I noticed the inherent role that women play in protecting our ocean. From law enforcers to policy makers to surfers and community members, so many of us are dedicated to the ocean yet we are still underrepresented. Ocean heroes are still largely depicted as men – white men. This is not accurate and it does little to mobilise the masses we need for our ocean.

Moreover, no one ever made big changes by themselves. Big change requires community. I believe that individually we will not save the ocean but together we can. We must move away from the ego and the idea that one man or one organisation can save the ocean. So I set up Women4Oceans as a platform with the aim of building a community of women and connecting women around the world. The idea is to break down the barriers between us, whether it is our job titles or the institutions we work for, or whether it is our culture or geography that separates us, through connecting with each other and sharing knowledge based on our common goals we will accelerate our efforts for a healthy ocean.

What are the goals and objectives?

Very simply, Women4Oceans connects, supports and amplifies the actions of women around the world working for a healthy ocean. Why women? Because I believe that in order to take our society to the next level we must harness our full potential as humans and that means lifting the role of women across the ocean space to match the space that men already occupy. – We need all of us to save our ocean.

My goal is to accelerate ocean conservation through our shared love for the ocean. So if you work on shark conservation in Bangladesh for example, you can connect with women working on shark conservation in other parts of the world. This way, we feel part of a community, can share information easily, without necessarily have to forge official alliances between the institutions we represent, and we avoid reinventing the wheel. It also brings women together that may otherwise not connect. For example a woman working in government connects with women in ocean science or conservation from her country or region.

I have also built an online map and database for women working on ocean issues. The idea here is to make women visible. You can search women through key search terms, name, city and country. This way you can find women with similar interests and also women from your region. So a woman in Senegal for example, or the Philippines or anywhere can find other ocean women in their respective countries to connect to. Women form communities through their interests, areas of work or their geographies.

This map and database also helps to improve gender balance at ocean conferences since it buries the excuse that there are not enough women-experts for a particular topic. To this end we have also created a W4O gender balance and inclusion app to help conference organisers improve their game by calling out dismissive behaviour and applauding progress.

How can our readers be part of the movement?

Anyone can join the Women4Oceans movement. First of all take a moment to reflect upon and understand your relationship with the ocean. You’ll quickly find that where ever you live you and whatever you do, you too have an innate connection to the ocean. Think about it, every second breath we take comes from the ocean. We play in the sea, derive our food from the sea – even plant based foods – and we depend on the ocean for so many jobs. Congratulations! Now you are a part of the movement. Add yourself to our map and database. If you are a woman and work in anyway for the ocean add yourself here: If you don’t identify as a woman or don’t consider yourself as someone working for the ocean, then become a W4O Ally and add yourself here. Support our movement. I currently run Women4Oceans with next to no funding, so any donation will go a long way to growing the movement and eventually to supporting projects on ground. Follow us on social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) to learn and get inspired by the many amazing women working for our ocean. Spread the word!

Do you have any advice for our Surfer Girls readers who would like to be involved in Ocean Protection?

Think about what skills you have or would like to have and then think about how you can apply that to the protection of our ocean. If you are a good writer, then write about the ocean. Are you an artist? Then create awareness for the ocean through your art. If you are a mother, teach your children about the ocean.  Do you have an aptitude for law? Then think about become a lawyer for the ocean. I know many women that have pursued successful legal careers for the ocean whether it is ensuring better laws are in place to protect our ocean or providing legal counsel to marine mammals! Pretty much any skill you have can be applied to the ocean. And so it goes on, filmmaking skills, organisational skills, journalistic skills, business skills, all of it can be applied to helping our ocean.

Do you think women actions in environmental sector are less considered?

Unfortunately, in many parts of our society, the answer is yes. Even where we least expect it. Countries like the US still have a long way to go towards recognising the achievements of women. There is no shortage of women in the environmental sector, in fact it is probably one of the few sectors that attracts more women than men. However when it comes to decision making, management, leadership or any other position that determines our collective relationship with the natural world, it is still mostly men that dominate.

It is not enough to hail a token woman from our past or to praise the one woman you do have on your board or in your team. True inclusion is when all our views, irrespective of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever else distinguishes us from each other, are equally and fairly represented. As many before me have said, our diversity as humans is our strength.

At IMMERSION, our hearts and souls into the ocean merge. We believe in everyone is responsible for protecting our precious blue planet. There is a clear need to call for action now, before it is too late. As an advocate, can you tell us a few examples of what are, and will be the obstacles to overcome today and in the coming years?

I’ll try and keep this short! We can consider almost anything an obstacle. Climate change, population growth, overfishing, greed, diminishing respect for our natural world and so on. We can also view these obstacles as opportunities. Like I wrote before progress comes about when we see challenges and work to overcome them. All of these challenges give us a sense of purpose. We must overcome them if we want to avoid the collapse of our natural world as we know it.

The main challenge, I see, is changing the very systems that got us to where we are now. This is not to render them as useless but to recognise that all systems, natural or otherwise undergo evolution in order to survive. Our systems of governance, finance, politics and judiciary are no different. They must evolve to meet the new challenges. To me this means embracing our diversity. We must all be involved in shaping our future.

You are an inspiration for us, our readers and those fighting for change. What would you say to the women of our world, involved in the fields they love. Do you think that following your dreams can sometimes be risky?

My advice is always to follow your dreams. If you are not sure what that is, which is totally normal, then listen carefully to both your heart and mind. Make sure your dream has a purpose – whatever that purpose may be, it will set you on a path. Once you are on that path then the view ahead becomes clearer. Is it risky, perhaps. But without taking risk you are not pushing yourself to be the best of who you can be.

We are mermaids from the sea,

Living with salt water brains,

And women from the Ocean,

With the duty to care and protect it.