Young Saudi women come together with expatriates in Saudi Arabia once a month to dialogue
Fatima Abu-Srair is a translator currently working for a law firm in Saudi Arabia. She graduated from Al-Yarmouk University in Jordan and was always keen to participate wherever she found an opportunity to promote peace, which led her to volunteering for most of her life. She expresses a strong interest in different cultures and is currently a volunteer at King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue (KACND) in Riyadh, as well as a member of the Salam project. Fatimah is also part of the 2018 KAICIID Fellows Programme, which she considers a spiritual experience that leads to more awareness and positive interactions in her work for peace. Fatimah is one of the founders of “Dahawia” – a volunteer initiative organized by eight women living and working in Saudi Arabia. It convenes Saudi women together with women from the expatriate community in Riyadh in monthly dialogue sessions, where they discuss various topics from different perspectives. This is participatory dialogue: participants and organizers choose topics to be discussed by majority vote. The topic of discussion is announced on the initiative’s Twitter account and explained in outgoing invitations. Topics that were discussed in previous sessions include Cultural Shock, Ramadan, and Life from an Artist’s Point of View. The organizers take turns leading the sessions, which aim to promote a culture of dialogue that leads to accepting the Other through focusing on building common ground rather than debating differences.
We spoke to Fatimah about her work with youth in her community, and were pleased to learn that she focuses on engaging young women through her initiative. Here is how that conversation unfolded:
Can you describe your activity on the ground and how it aims to promote interreligious dialogue among youth in your community?
In Saudi Arabia we host 10.69 million expats; they are now in a country where 100% of the citizens are Muslims. A lot of the (migrants) did not know anything about Islam but what they see in the media. We had to act as young advocates. We had to tell the world that every religious or cultural background is welcome. We started a monthly gathering for young women, “Dahawia” in Saudi Arabia where we discuss everything, with a focus on what we have in common. Everyone is accepted regardless of their religious or cultural background. Through this initiative, we aim to promote a culture of dialogue that leads to accepting the Other, whoever he/she is.
Can you tell us what motivated you to start this initiative? How do you plan to make it sustainable and why is it important?
I was born and raised in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. I started to feel the need for something like this in 2014, when I moved to study abroad and heard so much “fake news”. Since childhood, I have had a lot of friends from different religions. It hurt me to learn that the world believes that we in Saudi Arabia as Muslims do not accept anyone who is different than us. All of a sudden I found myself feeling like a foreigner in Riyadh in 2017. I was still in my country, but Riyadh is a city where I knew almost no one. I met many expats from around the world who had been living in Riyadh for so many years and did not know anything about Saudis. They were scared because they saw or read something in the media about Muslims which fed their stereotypes, like saying that we are terrorists! I volunteered with many small initiatives by my friends, but those were more for tourists; showing people around was not my goal. When my colleagues in “Salam Project” thought of starting a volunteering initiative, I insisted that it be something related to promoting peace between religions. Dahawia is now in its fourth month. We meet once a month over the weekend, to make it easier for our guests to attend. Every month there is a new topic and new participants. We are eight founding members and every month one of us leads the session. The guests started to invite their friends because they believed in our idea. This belief is what is going make it sustainable.
Can you describe the results that you have been able to see? What kind of impact does your work with youth have on your community?
As I mentioned before, it’s been four months since we started the initiative. In the first meeting, guests came because they are our friends and just want to support us (although my friends were skeptical about this idea at first). Now, they are asking how they can participate in organizing the gatherings! In addition, Saudi media is talking about every meeting of Dahawia. I received a lot of questions from Saudi youth about what they can do to help. The best question was “What I can do from my position to tell the world that my community has no problem to coexist with any other religion or culture?”