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

06/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Earlier this month, I was invited to comment on the Saudi judge who condoned wife-slapping as appropriate punishment for a spendthrift wife, first reported in the Arab News. The comment (made at a conference for academics at a symposium on domestic violence in Saudi Arabia) engendered a sharp intake of breath, on both sides of the Levant.

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.

The judge's myopic bias is a gift in disguise: he provides a welcome fracture in the puritanical theocratic edifice which is rapidly crumbling, and will ultimately dissolve under the pressure of much needed, sane debate. Those at the apex of The National Family Safety Program have long recognized that some men working in the Saudi Arabian judicial system and certain elements at work within the Kingdom's prosecution departments share the same misogynistic views as the judge who triggered the global outcry. Some have actually been known to abuse the women in their own lives, something which simultaneously revolts and galvanizes the Saudi men and women into redoubling their efforts to end such hypocrisy.

Realizing the intrinsic bias present in the very infrastructure of the Saudi judiciary, Dr. Al Muneef and her organization have launched a grassroots response. Her movement speaks to the novel interactions between a new citizen vanguard and the Establishment which have, until now, been unprecedented within Saudi society. Every month, within every major city in the Kingdom, The National Family Safety Program hosts a 'town hall meeting" open to the city's chief justice, the director of the police department, the prosecuting lawyers serving in the city's courts and other lawyers and activists who are focused on women's rights. These community meetings have created some of the first public forma to air and discuss these problems.

The premise is simple: once one airs such misogynistic and unfounded attitudes, they tend to shrivel under the scrutiny of broad daylight, particularly so when illuminated with Islam's powerful ideals, which are immensely invested in favor of preserving the rights and interests of society's most powerless members: women and children. While ignorant theocracy may long have attempted to foist a distortion of Islam as a weapon to confine and suffocate womanhood, they are beginning to find Islam will ultimately provide the very armament to liberate women from precisely such baseless subjugation. Dr. Al Muneef and her colleagues are busy enacting precisely these sentiments.

The first city-wide symposium hosted by the National Patient Safety Program was held in Jeddah, the second in Madinah (revered by Muslims globally as one of the two Holy Sites of Islam), and the third meeting was in the southern province of Asir, in the city of Abha, where the judge said his notorious comments.

His screeching irrationality sentiments only exposes how brittle the puritanical establishment is becoming in the new climate of transparency which is beginning to sweep many aspects of Saudi life, most notably surrounding the vibrant and influential roles of Saudi women. Calcified puritans are increasingly anxious when faced with the rising temperatures of domestic scrutiny trained upon them. They will soon find the full force of Islam's cool and tempered logic falling upon them like a dead weight as the educated expose the theocracy's intrinsic fallacies. All Muslims have three responsibilities: to themselves, to society and to God. Judges choosing fanaticism effectively abrogate all other duties when applying their rulings to Muslims, and overlook the fact that their judicial expression of Islam is fundamentally flawed when they condone cruelty to women. Condoning physical abuse to women is anathema to all Islamic ideals and certainly serves neither God nor society nor the Muslim individual herself.

While Craig and Marc Keilberger discussed "Seeing the potential of Saudi Women" earlier this week here on Huffington Post, and are rightly concerned about the limitations which affect many women and girls in the Kingdom, we must recognize that among the privileged, educated intellectual sectors, barriers are narrowing tremendously. In fact, Saudi Arabia already 'sees' the tremendous potential in Saudi women and is rapidly profiting from new talent in the shape of movements like the National Patient Safety Program. What perhaps has been difficult to identify has been Western recognition of these very landmarks in advancing Saudi Arabian human rights. Our reluctance to televise these stories, report these events, or discuss them in the public sphere this side of the Atlantic is increasingly perplexing. America in particular must now be truly introspective and consider whether they are ready to re-cast the decade long, near immutable vilification the post 9-11 Kingdom. Of course, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go in righting the imbalance between male and female rights -- they are not alone in their need for seeking gender equality: the last time I checked, women were paid 77 cents on the dollar to men, right here in the US. Nonetheless, there is unquestionably a sea-change in possibilities for Saudi Arabian women which will emphatically set the tone for women throughout the Muslim world, including I hope, in the country of my heritage, Pakistan which has some of the worst records on sex trafficking in the world.

When I explain these views challenging the traditionally negative casting of a homogenous Saudi Arabia made thus more palatable for the post 9-11 Western public, I find myself dubbed a 'paid agent of the Saudi government,' or 'feverishly supportive' of His Majesty King Abdullah. I am neither. I am merely a Muslim woman exercising my responsibilities: to expose injustice. We have an intensely distorted assessment of the Kingdom which must be rejected if one is to seek a true and more balanced view of the very exciting reforms and activism afoot.

The educated, particularly the educated amongst women, will be the single most powerful engine for reform and progress. Dr. Al Muneef's movement, a movement for which she lobbied and secured Royal patronage (finding it in Princess Adila bint Abdullah, King Abdullah's daughter, no less) is a perfect example of the advantaged reaching out to improve conditions for the disenfranchised. She has invested hours of her own time, carved out from her busy academic pediatric infectious disease career, and her family responsibilities to build what you see today.

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.

Meanwhile Dr. Al Muneef continues her work raising awareness of domestic violence in Saudi Arabia. She recently held the second expert symposium on domestic violence and the key note speaker was none other than the newly appointed Saudi Minister of Justice, Mohammed Al Issa, evidence of her growing impact.

So, while you may only 'see' a small veiled figure when you visit the Kingdom to meet with Dr. Al Muneef, make no mistake, she is realizing fully the potential of many Saudi women, and, while to the West she and many activists like her may remain invisible, her actions are not only visible but emphatically palpable. She is the Gloria Steinem of Arabia.