Women of Courage: An Interview with Dr. Maha Al Muneef

Dr. Maha Al Muneef couldn’t travel to the United States to receive the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in 2014. So President Obama went to her.

He presented her with the award in her home country of Saudi Arabia during a trip to the region.

Today, Dr. Al Muneef will have a chance to see what the ceremony is all about. She’s here in Washington, D.C. as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the award, which will include a handful of honorees from past years.

Since the award started in 2007, the State Department has honored nearly 100 women from 60 countries, including Dr. Al Muneef. To mark the anniversary, we asked her a few questions -- and got to hear her story about what it was like to receive the award from President Obama.

In a perfect world, women and girls would: pursue their dreams no matter how challenging it is.

What does courage mean to you? Speak up, take action, and do what you think is right.

What’s your favorite memory from the International Women of Courage Award ceremony?

I was unable to go to Washington DC to receive the award from Michele Obama due to unexpected surgery, but I was fortunate enough to get the award from President Barack Obama during his visit to my country, Saudi Arabia. I did not expect the ceremony nor the media coverage to be that huge or prestigious.  

Therefore, I was overwhelmed by the number of media personnel entering the hall to cover the event , and when President Obama came out to greet me and my family, I did not see him because I was looking to the other side where the camera  and media men being assembled.  My daughter kept poking me and telling me “Look, look, the president is here!” And the President kept saying, “Hi,” to me while I am still looking at the huge crowd, finally I looked and saw the President laughing with my kids and then he started greeting me and my family. 

How did the International Women of Courage Award change your work? The Award gave legitimacy to my work on domestic violence in Saudi Arabia.

The National Family Safety Program that I initiated in 2005 is valued more and now is recognized as one of the most important organizations nationally and it is listed among organizations representing the country in external delegations. Further, the level of awareness on domestic violence is increased and it is no longer a taboo.

What’s the secret to getting things done and making progress on the issues that matter to you? First do something bigger than yourself for a cause that you believe in, believe in yourself,  and don’t forget to listen to what your heart is telling you.

What do you think is the biggest barrier to progress? Fear of failing, not believing in ourselves, and our tendency as women to underestimate our ability to handle any challenge or matter.

What’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of? Are there any projects you’ve worked on since the award? I was able to break the taboo about domestic violence. I was able to change it from being a shameful family problem to being a public health problem that matters to all people and communities. I raised the level of awareness and knowledge of the people about domestic violence and child maltreatment.

The tangible outcome of all this is that I was able to initiate and advocate for the Domestic Violence Act and the Child Protection Act in Saudi Arabia where both were approved in 2013-2014.

My projects now moved to another dimension where I focus on prevention of domestic violence and child maltreatment before it occurs.  I initiated large scale, evidence-based, national prevention programs in the whole country.

Who is your role model? My mom -- she raised seven girls and encouraged them to pursue their education. She empowered them to have a career and be independent which is outside the norm in a very conservative culture.

What should the next generation of women leaders know about leadership and courage? What can they do to continue your work? The young generation needs to know that leadership does not come by setting our sights too low, they should go out of their comfort zone and try something new. They should not underestimate their ability to lead themselves and others to greater heights of success.  Excel in their careers and go where the magic happens.

To continue my work they need to dream big, take risks, speak up, and take action.

About the Author: Betty Bernstein-Zabza is a Senior Advisor and Director of Operations in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues

Editor's Note: This blog is part of a series that will -- surrounding the 2016 International Women of Courage Awards -- explore the insights of courageous women's rights advocates from around the world.



Cora S.
United States
March 31, 2016
I am so grateful to have received this article: grateful for myself, grateful for my daughters, and grateful for the many other women I will be sharing this with. God bless America!
President Barack Obama presents Dr. Maha Al-Muneef with the U.S. Secretary of State's International Woman of Courage Award in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 29, 2014.
March 29, 2016


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