Saudi receives International Women of Courage Award

Maha al-Muneef, a Saudi physician who received the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award for her efforts to combat domestic violence, talks to Al-Hayat about core issues affecting Saudi society.

al-monitor US President Barack Obama welcomes Maha al-Muneef, the executive director of Saudi Arabia's National Family Safety Program, before presenting her with the Secretary of State's International Woman of Courage Award in Riyadh, March 29, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Topics covered

women's issues, women's rights, society, saudi arabia, education, domestic violence, culture

Apr 22, 2014

Maha al-Muneef is a Saudi physician who gained international fame after receiving the US Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award, presented to her by US President Barack Obama during his recent visit to Riyadh, in recognition of her efforts in fighting domestic violence.

This Saudi woman has been advocating the cause of domestic safety in her country for a decade now. Muneef was born in 1960, a year that will remain present in the history of Saudi women, since a royal order was issued that year to open the door to formal education for girls in Saudi Arabia.

In the following interview, the activist physician expressed her opinion on multiple issues related to women and children in her country. She denounced the expression “Saudi specificity” and said that it is used to limit women’s mobility and empowerment. Muneef stated the focus on women’s driving is strange and exaggerated to the detriment of more important issues.

Moreover, Al-Hayat discussed with Muneef issues relating to education and scholarship, work and women's rights and asked her opinion on the new generation of girls in her country.

Al-Hayat: The most common question nowadays is: who is Maha al-Muneef?

Muneef: I am the daughter of this pure country. I hail from a family from Al-Qassim. I completed my primary, intermediate, secondary and university education in the kingdom.

Al-Hayat: You were born in an era where girls’ education was controversial in Saudi Arabia, was it easy for you to enter school?

Muneef: I was born and raised in a civilized science-loving family that encouraged me to enter school and pursue my education. The story about my school registration was quite unusual; my aunt took me to school when I was 5 years old and asked the director to allow me to sit in class as a listener only until I reached the school entry age. However, less than two months later the director requested that I register, since I was excelling despite my young age.

Al-Hayat: After nearly 50 years of controversy regarding girls’ education, the female students of this generation are now occupying senior positions and receiving international awards. How did this happen?

Muneef: Time has evolved. I think that 50 years is enough time to introduce change. We used to demand education for women, we wanted women to be able to read and write. Now the challenges, needs and opportunities have changed and Saudi women’s expectations of achievements have increased. Constant change and movement are the rules of life.

Separation of girls' education

Al-Hayat: An observer of the issue of girls’ education in Saudi Arabia can note that education has gone through gender segregation, while girls’ education in particular was a crucial issue for 40 years. How do you explain this?

Muneef: The real question is whether we really needed this stage? I think we did, because girls’ education was something new and a large portion of society rejected it, so it was a wise decision by the king to separate female education from that of men, until society accepted girls’ education. Yes, this separation lasted a long time, but when the time was right, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud decided to unify the educational process and make women's education a part of the social and development system.

Al-Hayat: How do you see the new generation of girls in your country?

Muneef: They enjoy higher capabilities, ambitions and expectations given their education and openness. They are aware of their potential to contribute to growth and development along with young men. They used to be requested to supply basic needs and they had a basic foundation of rights, but they built over it a broader structure of rights. The new generation of Saudi women is seeking to prove itself and its ability to contribute to decision-making, and to be an active member in society.

Al-Hayat: What about university education in Saudi Arabia?

Muneef: Even though university education has achieved tremendous strides in terms of expansion and inclusion, unfortunately it has not yet reached the required level in terms of quality. It still relies on dictation, neglecting scientific research and survey. After graduating from medical school in Saudi Arabia, I spent 10 years in the United States for training and specialization. This is when I noticed the real difference. In the United States, they did not teach me what I could find in books and libraries, but rather I learned how to face crises by dealing with the patients and staff in the health sector. This is probably what led me to take interest in fighting for the cause of domestic violence when I returned home and worked in Saudi health institutions. Studying in the United States has shaped my personality and boosted my self-confidence.

Scholarship to study abroad

Al-Hayat: You experienced studying abroad, how do you see the scholarship program [through which the state funds Saudi students studying outside the kingdom]?

Muneef: The scholarship program is a giant step. The fact that young men and women get to experience other cultures and different ways of teaching is very important. Our religion is a religion of coexistence with other cultures and religions.

Al-Hayat: What is your opinion on the opposition to girls’ [participation in the] scholarship program?

Muneef: I think society has made ​​up its mind in this respect, as evidenced by the fact that thousands of girls are applying for scholarship programs with the support of their families, especially their fathers. This is an important social evolution. Perhaps the excellence of many of those girls became a source of pride for their families. The state has realized this social change of perception since the scholarship officials set forth equal scholarship conditions for male and female applicants and facilitated girls’ scholarship.

Al-Hayat: What is your take on the rejection of girls' scholarships due to the radical difference between Saudi Arabia and Western countries?

Muneef: The cultural and social differences do not justify the failure in benefiting from the civilizational and scientific achievements made by others, because Arab and Islamic culture accompanies male and female students at home and abroad and there is no fear for them. The scholarship increases their commitment to their values, and the 50-year Saudi experience proves this fact.

Al-Hayat: What will happen after a female student returns to Saudi Arabia?

Muneef: The male and female returnees may need an adaptation period, as the education phase is different from the work requirements on the one hand, and their expectations on the other. Yet, keen to contribute to the development process, the students will overcome most of the obstacles that they will be facing.

Al-Hayat: According to the latest labor force survey publication in Saudi Arabia, 99.4% of the female labor force is educated, and female university students (71.2%) represent the largest portion of those who are unemployed. Don’t you think these figures are alarming?

Muneef: Yes, the unemployment rate for women in Saudi Arabia is high, and it is alarming that most of [the unemployed] hold a higher degree. In the recent years, the female work force has evolved, and women have had access to fields that were not available to them in the past. It is a positive development that will hopefully continue. Yet, the employment rate of Saudi women 10 years ago did not exceed 10%, and it was limited to a few sectors such as education and medicine. In contrast, this rate has risen now to 38%, and it includes new sectors such as the industrial and financial sectors, among others. However, the gap between education and the labor market for both genders is a challenge that should be focused on. In the past, women used to study history, geography, Sharia studies and literature. The market has been saturated by these specializations, thus today we need more technical, scientific and practical skills. Therefore, a transitional phase prevails now over the labor market.

Al-Hayat: What about the job opportunities that await Saudi women?

Muneef: They can work in any place, provided that they receive qualification and training prior to their access to the labor market. With the return of female students, and qualification, training and the new areas of work that are open to women in the institutions, job opportunities are no longer limited to the health and education sectors, as was the case for my generation.

Al-Hayat: You have always talked about social entrepreneurship projects and considered them to be very important.

Muneef: Holding a government position was the goal of every university graduate. At present, the secure government job no longer exists, and Saudi women are required to work on social entrepreneurial projects. They should be motivated and capable of withstanding the loss, because these projects are the future of youth in general and of Saudi females in particular.

Al-Hayat: Some believe that with the high unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia priority is given to men to be hired.

Muneef: The household income in Saudi Arabia depends now on the salaries of the husband and the wife. If job opportunities are equal for both, priority goes to the most qualified and competent, whether a man or woman. Some work fields may be more adequate for women than men, and vice versa.

The particularity of Saudi Arabia

Al-Hayat: Talk about Saudi society recalls the idea of the “particularity of Saudi Arabia.” What do you think of that?

Muneef: Every society has its particularity, which should not represent a pretext to limit its progress and development, or to limit the rights and potentials of women, which are guaranteed in Sharia. Unfortunately, this term has been used to limit the movement and the empowerment of women, which is a mistake, because Saudi women do not have different demands and rights than the rest of the world. 

Domestic violence

Al-Hayat: What about domestic violence?

Muneef: Domestic violence is a global phenomenon and a human behavior that has existed throughout history. Its presence is not a shame or embarrassment to society. Yet, what is shameful is to keep ignoring it, giving excuses and not dealing with it. It is present in all societies, and Saudi society is no different. A World Health Organization study covering more than 48 countries revealed that domestic violence rates range between 10-70%, which means that this rate increases and decreases in a society depending on how effective the measures to fight it are, its reasons and how widespread it is.

Al-Hayat: What about domestic violence in Saudi Arabia?

Muneef: Domestic violence used to be considered a family issue in Saudi Arabia, and therefore it was confined within the walls of the house. It was not handled as a public or health issue. We have worked for 10 years to disseminate the idea that domestic violence does not only affect the health of women and family, but also that of society as a whole.

Al-Hayat: How does the culture of shame affect the issue of domestic violence in Saudi Arabia at present?

Muneef: A culture of shame still controls the society. This is probably because it is a tribal society, and in such societies, the thing that happens to the individual is a shame to the family and tribe. Domestic violence is still viewed as a family issue that should be covered up or ignored. It is one of the challenges that we are working to overcome. By the way, most Arab societies suffer from the culture of shame, not only Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hayat: What about society’s awareness of the dangers of Saudi domestic violence?

Muneef: Our society’s awareness of the dangers of domestic violence has increased, as evidenced by the increase of reported cases. I think that the local media outlets have contributed to this. Moreover, the state bodies and social security’s addressing of many cases played a big role in it, but the human rights culture among the members of the family is still weak.

Al-Hayat: What are the reasons behind violence in Saudi Arabia?

Muneef: There are general reasons behind domestic violence, including but not limited to the poor deterrent laws ratified in the past and a culture that deems beating as a discipline or a means of education. Some reasons result from an individual behavior, such as the young age of the couple, a big age difference between husband and wife and educational level. The family relationships play a significant role as well. The Saudi family used to be more cohesive, but the family support is sinking nowadays. Add to this various social cases such as increasing unemployment, poverty, drugs, economic deficiency and other elements that breed violence.

Al-Hayat: What do you think of the government agencies’ cooperation?

Muneef: There is a clear improvement in the type of services provided to the victims of domestic violence, be it at the health, social security or even legal levels. The issuance of the system of protection against abuse, which we contributed in its drafting in the framework of the Family Safety Program with government agencies and charities, was a milestone, but we still aspire to more. We want shelters specializing in domestic violence, and specialists, social workers and experts in this kind of violence.

Al-Hayat: Is there a need for a ministry devoted to women or family in Saudi Arabia?

Muneef: What would be more appropriate is having a higher council for family affairs. Such a council would control the performance of government agencies and private organizations that serve the family. It would also follow the implementation of family-related decisions issued by the government.

Women's rights

Al-Hayat: How do you access Saudi women's rights?

Muneef: There are two types of rights. The first includes those stipulated by Sharia and ensured by the systems. Unfortunately, the culture of human rights among Saudi women is low compared to neighboring countries, and this affects the exercise of these rights. The other type of rights is civil, and Saudi women are still lacking many of these, not because they are not approved, but rather because there are social circumstances related to customs and traditions that impede their practice. Thus, the process of obtaining these rights is somewhat slow.

Al-Hayat: What about the presence of Saudi women in leadership positions?

Muneef: Saudi women have been given leadership positions. Unfortunately, however, there are some who question their capabilities, professionalism and ways of dealing with them in a leading position. Thus, women are not given considerable powers such as those given to men occupying the same position.

Al-Hayat: Who is to blame?

Muneef: Maybe it is because we are in a transitional phase. Women were marginalized with no place in public affairs, and the Saudi king is currently leading a stage where women, just like men, are involved in the development process.


Al-Hayat: As soon as a Saudi woman wins an international award, the international press rushes to ask her about women driving in the country.

Muneef: Saudi women have acquired many rights in the two areas of education and work. This qualified them to be in a position of decision-making. But there are pending issues such as driving, and I personally think that this is a thorny issue that has taken a great deal of our reasoning, sometimes at the expense of more important issues. This topic has even affected the impression that other countries have developed about the kingdom and the role of women in it, despite the amazing achievements that they have come to make in other areas, the most recent one probably being the strong entry of women to the Shura Council.

Al-Hayat: Social networking sites have become valuable across the Arab region, how do you perceive them in your country?

Muneef: Social networking sites have widely spread in Saudi Arabia, and I know that this has positive aspects. I noticed, however, a negative trend in some of them, probably as a result of a shallow discussion of topics. Add to this the acute shortage of correct scientific information. For instance, Twitter users are unfortunately not obliged to support their tweets with evidence. Many of them are entering this space using pseudonyms. I call on them to suggest solutions instead of spreading such negativity.

Al-Hayat: What do you think of the civil society institutions?

Muneef: The work of civil society must evolve to be able to participate in advancing development. With the increase in a human rights culture in civil society, its institutions must constitute the third axis after the executive and legislative institutions. Moreover, civil society institutions ought to practice their role, namely controlling the work of government institutions, as is the case in many societies. The empowerment of women under the guidance and support of the Saudi king has made achievements, but we always look for more.

Al-Hayat: You said that you addressed the International Women of Courage Award a lot in the media. We would like to conclude with it.

Muneef: In this regard, I guarantee that the award is not for personal distinction only, but for all Saudi women, as fighting domestic violence was and still is a collective work on the part of many women in this country. This award is also aimed at distinguishing simple local work, so that it can eventually reach the international level.

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