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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Qanta Ahmed: Invisible Women at Work: Meet Maha Al-Muneef, the Gloria Steinem of Arabia

Describing the rising tide of reform engulfing the issues of abuse (both domestic violence and child abuse) within the Kingdom to the CNN audience, I quickly realized my comments were news, even to the well informed here in the United States. Surprising, given the fact HM King Abdullah has made these very issues such a priority of his monarchy since his 2005 ascent to the throne. At the helm of civil activism driving these reforms is Dr. Maha Al Muneef. For years now I have been watching Dr. Al Muneef at work, pursuing her passion from before even she knew she would one day be heading the single most influential movement to change attitudes towards women and children in the Kingdom.

When we were last together at an academic meeting for female professors in Riyadh this past December, she explained to me how she personally went to every police station and court in Riyadh and met with the officers and judges to educate them about abuse. Standing in her veil, a tiny figure at under five feet tall in heels, she counseled what can only be described as an exceptionally tough crowd, often facing an unreceptive and very crusty establishment who barely reluctantly tolerated her discourse. She always speaks with deference and diplomacy in the face of disdain and sometimes contempt, understanding (like every effective citizen activist) that how you express yourself is just as important as what you express. One by one, she culls favor and support for her missions, introducing a diametrically new paradigm challenging the theocracy so entrenched in the past. Until Dr Al Muneef's work, there existed no means of public engagement with the judiciary outside of facing trial oneself. Because of her personal efforts, Dr. Al Muneef has, within the framework of the National Patient Safety Program, exposed the Saudi judiciary them to healthy, open and strong domestic criticism. As a reflection of King Abdullah's appetite for reform and transparency, these events have been widely and very favorably explored in the Saudi Media, reflecting the security and confidence of a rather free Saudi press, one might say.


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