Muna AbuSulayman, Saudi media personality, international humanitarian, teacher, mother, divorcee and now, fashion designer speaks to ILLUME.
You are one of the most prominent Saudi women in the Middle East. Do you feel you have a greater responsibility to represent your country and its treatment of women?
I did for a while, I felt that my life was a defense of Islam, of Saudi, of ideas and ideals. I don’t feel that way anymore. It was too much pressure to live up to what people think I should be. I am much happier now. I live my life as Muna AbuSulayman…a divorced mother of two, who is in her late 30’s, who is trying to be reach her own potential and to whom Islam is a way of life, not a routine 3ibada but who is not wedded to rituals.
What advice to offer to aspiring young women who see you as a model of success in the region?
I think what people have liked about me is that I don’t give up. I am persistent. I evaluate and revaluate my life/work plans to get somewhere. But I am that way, because I know what I want out of life. It was not easy, to look inside of myself and think of all the possible scenarios that can happen. So for example, being a good daughter-the way I think a good daughter should be, not the way society tells me a good daughter is—is one of the most important issues in my life, as my parents are growing older, and I want to spend more time with them, yet still have my own life.
Also, I have learned to forgive myself, I have learned to be Zen about whatever life throws in my face. I have learned to appreciate the small success in my personal life, in my work, and in my family and not to always look for the big bang success.
As SECERTERY GENERAL of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, you are in charge of addressing some of the world’s most pressing needs. What do you feel is the greatest humanitarian challenge facing the international community? What are you focusing on at ABTF?
I have many concerns in the international community like others in the field, it is all about how we do our work so that each person we help has the dignity that he needs to be able to live a life not based on mere survival. My heart aches when I see how much pain and loss and poverty there is. It sometimes becomes too much to bear. No matter how many people we help there are hundreds of millions that are not getting help.
It is also important to think of whole system solutions. How do we invest in solutions that create better health, living, educational standards for those who need it the most?
You are a woman, who wears many hijabs. As a founding co-host of a popular Arabic talk show on MBC, Kalam Nawaem, women looked to what you were wearing and followed your fashion cues. Most recently, you started your own clothing line. What motivated you to enter the fashion industry and What are your collections all about?
I love fashion that is elegant and practical and for a mohjaba or a woman who does not want to show a lot of skin, not much is available. So I decided to create it …The collection is about beautiful and elegant pieces for daily life. It is about ease of choice, of finding everything you need form morning till night in one place.
What has been the response to your clothing line?
Women love it. They say it is exactly what they have been looking for. And inshAllah I will be expanding the collection, as I only do one collection per year right now due to time constraints. I also want to start making some of the pieces, and the embroidery here in the Arab world.
What gets you up in the morning, everyday?
That question is so complicated. This year has been one of the happiest in my adult life, because I finally figured out so many things about my own needs. So I get up happy to tackle the world, to see my daughters live their lives and to see what surprises the world will throw at me that day.
But just a few years back, it was not so.
I guess the truth is that some mornings I didn’t want to get up. There were too many problems and issues at work or at home, and you wish you can just stay in bed sleeping, pretending that time standing still -- that there is nothing wrong. But that is life, it is messy. And for divorced Saudi woman living alone, sometimes it got too messy, too many things to think of, to plan. Despite knowing how blessed I am, I am human, I wished for someone else to share life with, to share the burdens with, to share my moments of happiness with. I only became happier when I put that out of mind and started relying on myself to be happy. Most mornings, I used to wake up because I had too much to do. Now, I wake up because I can’t wait to do them.
As a divorced woman, you must face a lot of discrimination in your society and in the Middle East in general. What are your thoughts on divorce? Do you have advice for other divorcees?
First of all let me discuss that there are many cases where divorce is necessary, such as violence and major disrespect. However, many times a divorce could have been prevented if our society did its job right and treated marriage and parenting with the respect they deserve.
That said, divorce in many of the Arab countries is so unfair to women. Your life basically ends as you have to be start thinking of being a single mother. Financially, most divorces are quite unfair for women and the children. Additionally, you still have to deal with your husband, now your ex. So if you do not have the right tools to communicate before the divorce, it will get worse with the new wife, how society sees you, and even with more family interventions. So my advice is that before you get divorced, do the ground work, get advice, go to therapy either by yourself or with your husband if you can convince him. Realizing actual steps of how you can build your life (so taking courses and maybe even getting a job) so that you are not helpless and dependent on your ex-husband.
You need to help your husband realize that the most important thing, once you got divorced, is that the kids don’t unduly suffer. Don’t let them be a pawn in the negotiations, and don’t talk about how bad your ex was in front of them. Their psychological well-being depends on your behavior.
You also have to take care of yourself. I know it is difficult. But looking at divorce like a contract that ended, helped me overcome the bitterness that came with the huge upheaval in my life. As well as that, I have always valued myself, as a person, not just as a wife. I did not view myself in that definition. I was MUNA, who happened to be a WIFE but also a daughter, also a lecturer, also a good mother etc. etc. etc.
You lived and studied in the United States for quite awhile and you live in Saudi Arabia. How do you reconcile your Eastern and Western values?
I don’t have a problem reconciling them within me, I think it is people who are around me who have a problem with that. They see me in my hijab and think of me as conservative. Yet when they talk to me they realize that I have many views ranging from extremely liberal on some issues to extremely conservative on others. As I said earlier, I live my life as a Muslim, I think the concept of good citizenry exists in many non- Muslim societies as well as Islam. So for me it is about the difference between the two ideas, as well as the similarities. I care about the environment because it is Islamic to do so, but it is also part of global citizenship. I work in the humanitarian field, and that fulfills Islamic spiritual love for humanity, but also because I am part of this world…so my values always coincide, they do not diverge.
With what values are you raising your two daughters?
I want them to be able to observe the rituals of Islam but also know the purpose behind them. I want them to live their lives in the way they see fit, but not to give up on traditional family values while pursuing their dreams. I want them to be happy with who they are, despite their shortcomings. I never want them to think of themselves as lesser human beings because of nationality, gender or religion. And most of all I hope to raise them to be fair--fair to themselves, to others, to the world.
What do you like most about what you do?
I love the creativity of trying to pull seemingly impossible deals together. I love seeing that the work I do matters to someone and that I have helped improve their lives. I love working with talented people, they give me such energy.