Normalization deals offer growing economic, security, and political ties beyond relations with Israel or even the United States.
Intellect Jeddah is a grassroots organization initiated by young Saudi women Renad Amjad, Amna Fatani, Refaa Sindi, Jawaher Abbar, and Orjwan Alomari, with an eye toward creating a thriving intellectual environment in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Their current team consists of Renad, Amna, Mai Abdulwahab, and Walaa Alqarni. Targeting youth age 19-29, most of Intellect’s participants are students who seek thoughtful discussion on topics not readily available at their universities. The initiative aims to offer participants knowledge development, skill building, and networking opportunities.
Renad, who founded Intellect Jeddah with Amna, is pursuing her master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University. She grew up in Jeddah and has a strong interest in education and combating gender-based violence. In this feature, Renad discusses how the 2009 Jeddah floods led her to become more civically engaged, how regional events and changing civil society laws in Saudi Arabia have impacted Intellect Jeddah’s work, and the importance the group places on providing young Jeddawi women greater educational opportunities and space for their voices to be heard.
AGSIW: Tell us how Intellect Jeddah started. What was going on around you that motivated you to start this initiative?
Renad: We started in 2009. My co-founder and I wanted to work on youth and women’s issues. We wanted to supplement our education and enable people to be involved in intellectual discourse. Every topic has an economic, political, and historical aspect and our system doesn’t really cover these. This is why we came up with Intellect; we were focused on providing these tools and skills. When we started we didn’t expect Intellect to grow as it did. We did a trial semester to figure out how and what we wanted to do exactly.
I am really passionate about what happens in Saudi and especially my city, Jeddah. The thing that really motivated me was the Jeddah floods of 2009. The tragedy made me want to work hard for Jeddah and it’s society and left an impact on all of us. It encouraged me to do more. It was a shock. We had a lot of victims – 122 victims. I worked as part of an emergency response campaign, which was mostly made up of youth like myself, and we worked hard for the city. I really care about Jeddah and the experience made me think about how we really needed to change a lot of things. We felt like we were missing many tools to handle it so each of us should focus on a certain area in which to work for the city. I realized there was so much I wanted to do, but I couldn’t focus on everything. I had to choose one area and focus, so I chose education and gender.
AGSIW: Would you tell us a bit about the activities Intellect provides for youth and the goal(s) behind them?
Renad: We have three programs, the first and main one – which is not active now – is a one-year program for girls only. It consists of two semesters. In the first, participants take foundation courses, which change depending on the year and where we see need, but mainly we cover economics, political science, law, sociology, art, etc. The courses are lecture-based with room for discussion. We consult with professors and universities to set course reading material and we bring in guest speakers to discuss the material with participants. After each session we have workshops – these topics can vary from team management to communication skills and public speaking. The second semester is a more practical experience, an application of the skills studied in the previous semester, so we’ve held a model U.N., we’ve done events with artists, events like this.
Our second program is a monthly session. It doesn’t follow a certain theme but usually we talk about current events. We did a panel on the Syrian revolution, on the judicial system in Saudi Arabia. These are open to both genders and typically we discuss current affairs in Saudi, although sometimes we discuss regional issues that people really care about, for example, the Syrian revolution.
The third is our trips, we either go on trips within Saudi as an exchange program or we travel internationally. We have taken groups to Kuwait and Istanbul. For the trips we basically try to mix our main goals: to provide attendees with knowledge, skills, and networking opportunities.
AGSIW: You mentioned that the main activities are on a temporary hiatus right now, what are the challenges Intellect is currently contending with?
Renad: A big challenge we are facing is a logistical one. Where previously more spaces and functions were available to host our activities, these options don’t exist at the same level now. Part of that is due to legal challenges of registering the organization as one which provides educational services as a nonprofit. We are currently looking at options of registering as a for profit commercial entity in the education sector. The other part is that the majority of team members have relocated to other countries and cities and it is much more challenging to run a small organization and accommodate different schedules across different time zones.
Another challenge is the market demand for our service. When Intellect Jeddah was founded, and during the first four years of its existence, it supplied an important service that met a great demand from the local market. That demand was fueled at times by regional events (such as the Arab Spring), and at times by local events (Jeddah floods as a prime example). The role these events played in young peoples’ lives varied, but one thing for sure, is that they amplified the inquisitive nature of young people and sparked a curiosity for understanding the role young people play in their lives and in society. By challenging the status quo, we addressed topics that didn’t always engage young people in the country, topics that were diverse and touched upon more than just our understanding of social sciences, but also applications of such in our lives. In the last two years, that thirst for intellectual stimulation has somewhat decreased. As we are trying to explore the root causes of this, we are also working on reframing the service we provide. At the base, Intellect Jeddah provides an educational service and we are currently looking to highlight the advantages of learning the “Intellect” way. Our pedagogy encourages participants to think about these topics analytically and pushes them to pursue innovative and original ideas. We believe these fundamental values are in demand in the local market and seek to adjust our future projects and activities to emphasize that.
AGSIW: Would you tell us more about the programs that are specific to young women? Why focus on women and what are you trying to provide them with?
Renad: The yearly program is specifically for women. I prefer to do programs with both genders because I believe in equality, but the reality is that Saudi men and women are not at the same level. The opportunities for women in Jeddah and Saudi are very few compared to what is available for men in terms of education and travel. It’s easier for men to travel to conferences, for summer programs, or for any educational purpose. Women from a certain segment of society can do this but most cannot. After our trial semester, we noticed that men spoke more comfortably and with confidence because they had more opportunities to travel, to participate in extracurricular activities.
Our main program is also specific to women because we took into our consideration the fact that a lot of women would not come if there were men. Many women’s families won’t allow them to come if there are men present, and we learned from our trial semester that there were a lot of young women who wouldn’t speak when the males were present. We want them to feel more comfortable attending and speaking. We want to target people who can’t or wouldn’t come if there are males.
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