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  • Sunday Women Group

Activism in Saudi Arabia takes many forms, most of which are not formal or recognized as activism. The Sunday Women Group (SWG) was established in Riyadh in January 1994 by a group of academics from King Saud University (KSU), mainly from the History Department. The objective was to create a forum to exchange knowledge and discuss ideas. The venue was and still is the members’ homes, and we meet the last Sunday of each month. Membership is based on individual recommendations with a minimal fee for stationary and some outside speakers’ expenses. The number shifts, but the SWG now has about 250 members from all backgrounds, including academics from KSU and other universities, career women, housewives, and students. Although this author established the group, the members have agreed to keep it leaderless. After the first decade we formed a board of ten women comprised of the most regular participants. We have not been able to register the group, because the state will not authorize anything like it. Nevertheless, this is the oldest continuous group of its kind in the country. Similar entities have formed since, but they centralize a place and a person in whose house women will meet for a specific interest, for example, art or literature.

Saudi Arabia does not allow independent civil society organizations or freedom of assembly. And because it is a gender-segregated state and women’s public participation is minimal, no cultural arena was available for women when the SWG formed. At the time the only media available were two Saudi television channels, one in Arabic and one in English. The only access to the world was through international radio stations broadcasting in Arabic, such as the BBC and Monte Carlo and, to a lesser extent, some Arab states’ stations. There are no theaters or cinemas even today, and occasional cultural events struggle to overcome continuous conservative resistance. We created a freethinking environment where women intellectuals exchange ideas outside restricted university walls and spaces. [End Page 242]

The core activity is a seminar with a presentation or a paper on a topic chosen by a member. The seminar topics have been organized into annual programs and for a few years in the new millennium were structured around themes, including violence, civil society, and the role of the municipal councils established in 2005. The SWG became our voice, an intellectual social forum where we exchange ideas and hopes, share activism, and theorize for women’s rights in the country. As the group has matured and we have grown older, the objectives have become more refined, complex, and geared toward women’s causes. We demanded women’s participation in the 2005 and 2011 municipal elections. In 2011 the king finally granted women this right. Women are to vote and run for municipal elections and councils in January 2016. In 2013 women entered Shura council with many members from the SWG. Different members of the SWG have entered into joint research about its objectives. Some are documenting Saudi women’s demands and some of the SWG members’ activism.

We no longer need to find ways and spaces to meet. Today we have nonstop opportunities on social media, including smart phone applications such as Whats-App, Facebook, and Twitter. If someone is away and a meeting is scheduled, she can use Skype or Tango. Currently, the SWG faces many challenges to meeting the intellectual needs of women. New sources and forums for intellectual life have developed along with new communication media and new avenues for lobbying, most of them virtual. An additional challenge is how to document the history of the forum and publish our materials. Finally, attracting the new generation that is less interested in this meeting format is a true obstacle that we are assessing and revising as we launch the twenty-second year of the SWG this month (1/1436 Hijri [November 2014]).

Hatoon Ajwad Al Fassi
Associate Professor of Women’s History
King Saud University, Riyadh, and Qatar University
December 14, 2014 [End Page 243]



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