The Sunday Women’s Group (SWG). To a Western audience, the name conjures images of warm cakes, home knits and small-town gossip. But in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Sunday is not a day of rest, it is the day that launches the working week; and the SWG has a different kind of chic lit on its reading list.
Nowadays we follow the progress of Saudi female activists in real-time technicolor; their blogs and Twitter feeds, charting triumphs and setbacks, are all ripe with material for the daily papers. But it wasn’t always this way.
In Saudi Arabia, the 1990s are known as ‘the decade of silence’. Without Internet, mobile phones or cable TV, the only information Saudi women grasped from the outside world was gleaned from the few international radio stations that broadcast in Arabic.
Just as women found themselves isolated from the rest of the world, the limited nature of communications within the country at that time, paired with segregation laws that effectively erased women from public life, meant women were also largely secluded from one another.
While Saudi men had long-since established their own informal assemblies where they networked, did business and debated current affairs, an increasingly educated and domestically liberated female populace was left out in the cold.
Behind the walls of King Saud University, Riyadh, the female professors of the history department began to hatch a plan. The aim was to create “a freethinking environment where women intellectuals could exchange ideas outside restricted university walls and space.” In January 1994, led by Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi, the SWG held its first meeting.
What started as a handful of frustrated academics, soon became dozens, then hundreds of women. The only condition of membership was a personal recommendation and a small fee to cover stationery costs. Teachers, professionals, students and housewives soon swelled the ranks.
But while their membership grew and diversified, the topics up for discussion quickly lessened and refined. It soon became clear that whatever their initial aspirations, the collective appetite lay in the discussion and pursuit of women’s rights in the country.
It was the SWG, among others, that pushed for women’s participation in the 2005 and 2011 municipal elections, a demand to which King Abdulaziz acquiesced in 2011. In 2013, when the first cohort of women was admitted to the Shura Council, the government’s highest consultative assembly, some were SWG members.
Indeed, while you may never have heard of the SWG itself, you can be sure that most of the influential female Saudi activists, academics and members of government you have seen in the public eye have passed through, visited, or been counselled by the group.
With such impressive alumni and apparent political clout, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the SWG is how they have managed to operate for so long in a nation where freedom of assembly is not a right and independent civil society organisations are prohibited, even for men.
The key is that officially, it doesn't exist. The organisation has never been registered and the group’s meetings, comprising seminars, debates and visits from foreign speakers, are conducted entirely in the living rooms of its members. The home is changed for each event. For all legal purposes, it is simply a gathering of friends.
This is not to say the government is ignorant of the group’s existence. The early days of the SWG were fraught with harassment and fear of raids, there are even rumours of spies infiltrating meetings. But Al Fassi was able to convince officials that the group’s activities were purely academic and signed an agreement vowing never to develop into a political organisation.
The delicate art of treading the line between academia and activism did not come intuitively all members, and not all have stayed. But thanks to the determination and wiles of its core members, the SWG did survive, and is now entering its twenty-fifth year, making it the oldest body of its kind in the Kingdom. As the arrival of the Internet and social media have steamrolled the old obstacles to communication, some younger activists have moved away from the group, believing it has lost its raison d’être.
But for as long as women anywhere in the Kingdom are excluded from assemblies, restricted in their movements or choices, or otherwise denied their rights; then on the last Sunday of every month, in an elegant parlour somewhere in Riyadh, a group of strong-willed, highly-educated and deeply patriotic women will discretely gather to sip coffee, nibble dates, and quietly plot to take down the patriarchy.
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