- Saudi Arabian Women and Group Activism
“Feminist Formations” is a 2015 JMEWS “Third Space” initiative. Autonomous “feminist” collectives and groups throughout the region were asked to describe their projects and reflect on their main challenges in the current historical moment. Seven entries were published in issue 11:1, and a final set of entries will be published in issue 11:3.—The Editors
Editors’ note: A number of activists in Saudi Arabia declined to write about specific “feminist formations” they were involved in. The editors asked Al-Dabbagh, a Saudi feminist and academic, to write an entry not centered on a particular group.
As a Saudi academic, I am well aware of the liminal politics of representation that produce “Saudi women” and “activism” as categories. In this overview I rely on direct experiences with collaborative feminist work in Saudi Arabia and research on feminism and women’s groups in Arabic and English.
Numerous independent formations work for women’s equality in public and private life through writing, organizing, lobbying, and/or protesting. Such groups take different forms and have varying perspectives on how they define and pursue social change agendas. They face diverse challenges shaped by intersecting hegemonic systems (familial, security, legal, transnational governance, and global capitalism). The general landscape for independent activism is extremely restricted and regulated. Most activism works unofficially or virtually using digital media and forums.
Politics. Saudi independent women’s groups can be categorized into four broad political orientations based on agendas: liberal (libralliyya), rights-based (huquqiyya), Islamist feminist (nasawiyya Islamiyya), and conservative (muhafitha). [End Page 235] Liberal groups argue for a larger role for women in public life through increased “participation” and are often explicitly concerned with the woman question. Rights-based groups refer to international human rights norms and do not exclusively focus on women’s rights per se but are active, for example, on prisoner rights. Islamist feminist groups offer revisionist readings of Islamic texts and seek to transform Islamic teachings on women’s issues from within. Antisectarian politics cuts across these three groups, although not all explicitly engage this matter. In contrast to liberal, rights-based, and Islamist feminist groups, conservative groups hold religiously strict views on women’s roles and presentations—for example, face cover, segregation, and so on—but can be critical of the United Nations and other bodies of transnational governance that impinge on state sovereignty. Many kinds of women in Saudi Arabia are not substantially accounted for in the broad categories described above, including foreign women, illegal migrants, and domestic workers.
Each political orientation has two variants: overtly critical of the state or willing to work “within the system” to advocate for state reforms. Individuals may simultaneously identify and work with groups across such ideological divisions. Broadly speaking, however, the liberals and Islamist feminists are discursively pitted against conservative groups on women and gender matters. Discursive gridlock means expressions of anti-imperial feminist critiques, for example, of international governance, are almost always articulated in the terms of the conservative groups. In this discourse women’s right to drive may be framed as an insignificant pro-Western/liberal concern.
Structure. Some of the groups embrace a formal organizational structure that includes committee work, regular face-to-face meetings, and membership fees. Others are fluid networks without leaders that interact virtually via social media. They range from a few activists to hundreds of members with chapters across the country. Some groups form sporadically, appearing in reaction to an event and dissolving quickly. Other groups have a permanent structure in which members self-identify regardless of current events.
“Feminism” and “activism.” Most groups do not operate with a feminist or exclusively feminist agenda. For example, some women’s groups have organized petitions to the king asking for a continuation of the ban on women driving. They advocate an “exceptionalist” (al-khususiyya) position on women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. The term feminist (nasawiyya) is not widely used, nor is it agreed on by women working on women’s issues. Other descriptions like womanist or female (nisa’iyya) are more common. Many self-identified feminists do not work in groups. For example, protests against the ban on women driving by well-known...