Woman of the World: Muna AbuSulayman

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Muna AbuSulayman is passionate about empowering women, promoting better understanding between Islam and the West, and creating clothes for modest fashionistas. Raquel Evita Saraswati catches up with the Fabulous Muslimah.

Muna AbuSulayman is one of the Middle East’s most recognisable media personalities and a powerhouse in the world of Arab philanthropy. She is also a leader in educational and societal reforms for Muslim women and youth, a professor of American literature, a fashion designer and a single mother.

Muna is most widely known for having hosted Kalam Nawaem, a popular television show on the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). The show brought together four women from different Arab countries to discuss the hot-button topics of the day—from women’s issues to politics and education.  Despite – or perhaps, in part, due to – the show’s tendency to raise eyebrows across the Muslim world by addressing issues like sexual education, Kalam Nawaem enjoyed the top-ranking spot on MBC.

In her capacity as the Executive Director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation and a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, Muna continues to spearhead the distribution of millions of dollars of aid for the victims of last July’s floods in Pakistan, which have already affected about 20 million people. She has also launched the Muna AbuSulayman collection, a line of elegant yet easy-to-wear fashion for women of all sizes. As a busy entrepreneur, global star and mother of two, Muna is a force to be reckoned with. In a society dominated by men, this Fabulous Muslimah is a shining example of what a woman with a huge heart and an insatiable hunger for knowledge can achieve. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Muna to ask her a few questions.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is to Muna’s left

Raquel: You were born in the United States, educated in Saudi Arabia, the US and Malaysia. You are the first woman Saudi Arabia has ever appointed to the position of Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Development Programme. You’ve lectured internationally – from many Arab forums to Davos and the Brookings Institute. You are truly a woman of the world. How do you think your unique worldview helps you to better bridge gaps, create relationships and foster understanding?

Muna: I think that living abroad and sharing experiences with many different kinds of people forces you to realise that many things aren’t as black and white as we think they are. This realisation helps you to understand and explain all sides during negotiations and everyday interactions.

I’ve also had the honour of meeting amazing people who are working to make this world a better place, and who are diligent about working for human dignity. It is a shame that those working for the good of humanity have less financial power than those working against it.

What do you see as a key obstacle facing Muslim women?

In some ways, I believe we are still thinking of women in a ‘Western’ versus ‘Eastern’ paradigm. I would like to propose a paradigm shift, to think of women in less of a polarised way.

The solution is to create a society in which women can have it all

How do you believe this kind of thinking has had a negative impact on women?

Most women do want a stable intimate relationship, a family, a career and independence. I realise that others may not agree, but I believe that we have to find a way to accommodate women who want it all. Of course, I realise that some women choose not to have families and that’s their right too. However, they are not the segment of the population that needs the most help.

First, we need real recognition – in monetary terms – for all of our contributions in and out of the home. This includes giving birth, homemaking, as well as taking care of elderly parents and children. These should be included in the GDP of our countries as well as in the national and international financial indexes that measure quality of life, health and more.

As yet, no country actually recognises how women’s work in the domestic sphere contributes to reduced health and welfare spending. For example, mothers who cook healthy meals for their families not only keep our youngest generation healthy, but they also maximise their school performance and ultimate potential. A recent study revealed that a soccer mom’s pay, with all domestic duties accounted for, would be around US$130,000. No women anywhere are properly respected for the contributions and sacrifices they make to maintain and improve our societies. Ultimately, all our work is taken for granted, making our vital contributions seem like trivial and unsatisfying work. During my childhood in the United States, some women were made to feel ashamed if they were called ‘housewives’. In the Muslim world, the trend to trivialise women’s work in the home is also on the increase.

How do you suggest we transform the way women’s roles are viewed worldwide?

In my view, the solution is to create a society in which women can have it all. We should allow women flexibility at work that allows them to be both professionals and parents. We shouldn’t just tolerate the dual roles that women often play, but appreciate and celebrate them as well. Currently, almost every society punishes women in some way if we try to create our own path. If you are a Saudi mother in her mid-thirties trying to find her first job, or an American mother trying to re-enter the work force, you will be punished with additional obstacles.

When women have interruptions in their careers, it’s often due to a vital role we play in preserving society – having and raising children or taking care of elderly parents. While I believe that men must help in the home, it is women who are taken out of the workforce while child-rearing. If these interruptions were taken into account and respected rather than punished, we would have fewer women torn between family and work, including in Muslim societies.

Increasing female political participation and decision-making in government is also of utmost importance.

Muna is sitting on the far right, wearing one of her own designs. This photo was taken during Sheikha Mozah’s (of Qatar) visit to Saudi Arabia. She is the woman in the black abaya and hijab.

How did you become involved in education reform?

The key to change is education reform. Education reform does not always have to be within the confines of formal education. It can also be about increasing parental awareness and engagement. Our societies are changing rapidly, and not enough attention is being given to ensuring that we advance not just technologically, but also socially. In the Muslim world, we can remain true to Islamic values while also coming closer to achieving humane treatment of all people.

It’s also important to note that many of our best-educated minds are [emigrating] to non-Muslim countries. As we introduce education reform, we must also work on social reform so that our best and brightest are inclined to reside in their home countries, leading dignified and productive lives.

I recently saw a video of you in which you challenged the notion that extremism is caused solely by poverty and desperation. You noted that the 9/11 hijackers were not poor. You have insisted that terrorism is also due to a particular interpretation of Islam. I fully agree with you. How do you suggest Muslim youth go about empowering moderate and reformist voices? How can non-Muslims be constructive in this effort?

I think that terrorism is usually a last resort. People who do not feel heard become frustrated. They turn to extreme alternatives. This happens in any society – take gang violence, for example, in poor neighbourhoods. It is a shame that some of our own are using our religion for this purpose, making people think that terrorism (and I include state-sanctioned violence against innocents here) is a way to bring dignity and humanity to the oppressed; or a legitimate way to express their grievances regarding foreign policy. Implementing and supporting education and social reforms is a key component to fighting the battle against extremism and terrorism. When people are empowered to change their societies in constructive ways, they will not be vulnerable to those with malignant intentions.

Tell us about your new fashion line, the Muna AbuSulayman collection. What inspired you to start this project?

I personally wanted to follow the Islamic dress code and still look modern and chic. It was so difficult to do – and I realised that I was wasting too much time looking for clothes. I decided to start a one-stop shop, for women who want to be elegant and wear the hijab, or for those who just want to dress modestly. The line is not just for women who wear the headscarf. Many of my friends shared the same frustrations I had when looking for modest clothes, but they do not wear the headscarf themselves. I also wanted to design clothes that fit real women, and not just those who are a size zero!

What kind of women do you see wearing your clothes?

I am designing for women like me – women who love being fashionable, who want to be elegant, and who are interested in quality but who are not interested in paying exorbitant prices.

What tips do you have for young female entrepreneurs?

Simply: research, research, research! Find out what your market is, what financial resources are available to you, and do focus groups to perfect your strategy. Also believe in yourself, and start small.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Aquila Style.

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