“If you’re living in an iron shack and drinking contaminated water, education isn’t going to be your priority,” says Muna AbuSulayman, BA English ’96, MA English ’96. The mother of two daughters, AbuSulayman has long carried passions for improving educational opportunities and life circumstances, particularly for women in the Middle East. These driving forces have put her on a fascinating—and diverse—career trajectory that includes stints in higher education, the media, and philanthropy.
AbuSulayman started her professional career as an English literature lecturer in her native Saudi Arabia. On a whim, she applied to work on an Arab-language television program called Kalam Nawaem, a talk show similar to The View, in which four cohosts explore societal issues. Nine years later, she is a well-known television personality in the Middle East. She left the program two years ago and is currently developing a news magazine-style series that will explore how cutting-edge ideas might influence the Middle East.
AbuSulayman has been able to use her media experience as a platform to expand awareness of societal issues. She notes that many people in the Arab world do not have the same information resources as Western countries. AbuSulayman believes that television programs can be used as a teaching tool and drive dialogue in a culturally sensitive way.
“I’d like for people to take one piece of knowledge from my show that would really affect them,” AbuSulayman says. “Something to make them a better person or a more productive citizen.” In addition to her media presence, AbuSulayman has had a global effect on philanthropy. She is the executive director of the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Kingdom Foundation, the charitable arm of Kingdom Holdings, a global investment company established by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. The foundation funds projects that focus on interfaith dialogue, alleviating poverty, and natural disaster relief.
AbuSulayman is personally and professionally passionate about women’s rights and improving educational opportunities in the Middle East. Her work in these areas has earned her a global spotlight. In fall 2009, AbuSulayman spent four months as a Yale World Fellow, a program that seeks to develop emerging global leaders.
During her time at Yale, AbuSulayman explored pay equity for women, particularly women who choose to step out of the workforce to concentrate on care-giving roles. The issue grew out of her personal struggles as a working mother.
“Women should be able to make the choice to stay home and not be penalized for it,” AbuSulayman says. “Being there for your children is important to their well-being.” She notes the lesser retirement benefits for women who choose not to work, as well as the diminished career opportunities for those with gaps in their work history. She observes that supporting caregivers offers societal benefits that can be quantified in such ways as improved childhood nutrition and lowered juvenile delinquency rates.
In any of the roles that AbuSulayman has taken on, she credits her English degrees from Mason as having helped prepare her intellectually for any challenge. “Literature is really a microcosm of the world,” she says. “Studying it allows you to be interdisciplinary.”
She continues to believe in the power of education to advance cultures, particularly in the Middle East. She advocates translating English-language journals into other languages, particularly Arabic, so that students from high school and on can have access to this broad knowledge base. But even with education as a high priority for AbuSulayman and the foundation, she views meeting basic needs as paramount.