President Barack Obama capped his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Saturday by presenting the International Women of Courage award to Maha al-Muneef, a pediatrician and executive director of the anti-domestic violence National Family Safety Program (NFSP). We are “very, very proud of you and grateful for all the work you’re doing here,” Obama told her in a brief ceremony at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton. “I’m looking forward to seeing you do even more wonderful things in the future.”
The annual award bestows official American recognition upon several women in different countries for leadership and courage “in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.” Since creating the award in 2007, the United States has honored 78 women, including two others from Saudi Arabia. The First Lady usually presents the award, but since al-Muneef was not able to attend the March 4 ceremony for this year’s honorees, the president gave her a special private ceremony during his stopover in Riyadh.
Al-Muneef can be both a leader in her milieu and a very safe choice for Washington. Under the circumstances, recognizing her accomplishments afforded the president an opportunity to mention women’s rights during his visit without ruffling any royal feathers. As Al-Muneef emphasized to al-Sharq al-Awsat, the organization she heads is a governmental and government-funded body. The NFSP’s literature confirms that “the National Family Safety Program was established by a Royal Decree (No. 11471/MB) on 16 Shawal 1426, the correspondent of November 18, 2005, as a national program that is administratively linked to the National Guard Health Affairs.” Its vision: “To be a leading force in fostering family safety, security, and unity.” While Obama’s commendation emphasized preventing family violence in the context of gender, NFSP’s activities focus particularly on child abuse.
Protection of children and families is a serious feminist and humanitarian cause in the US and around the world. But it is not the same as “advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.” Upon further inspection, the National Family Safety Program might as easily be construed as a vehicle for limited women’s empowerment within the kingdom’s misogynist gendered hierarchy, using the regime’s favored language about morality and family values.
Gendered, feminist and women’s activism can assume diverse forms in different contexts. Nowhere are the challenges facing women more complicated than in the Saudi kingdom, where so many commonplace liberties in a mostly affluent society — driving, testifying in court, checking in at an airport or to a hotel — are denied to half the population. The US endorsement of women’s activism is considerably less nuanced. Parse the paternalism in the president’s speech. Is Obama talking to his adolescent daughters or a high-achieving professional? Is the US applauding conformity rather than resistance?