Veiled am­bi­tion

Jamaica Gleaner - - PROFILE -

WHEN SOUAD al-Sham­mary posted a se­ries of tweets about the thick beards worn by Saudi cler­ics, she never imag­ined she would land in jail.

She put up images of sev­eral men with beards – an Or­tho­dox Jew, a hip­ster, a com­mu­nist, an Ot­toman Caliph, a Sikh, and a Mus­lim. She wrote that hav­ing a beard was not what made a man holy or a Mus­lim. And she pointed out that one of Islam’s staunch­est crit­ics dur­ing the time of Prophet Muham­mad had an even longer beard than him.

The frank com­ments are typ­i­cal of this twice-di­vorced mother of six and grad­u­ate of Is­lamic law, who is in many ways a walk­ing chal­lenge to taboos in deeply con­ser­va­tive Saudi Ara­bia. Raised a de­vout girl in a large tribe where she tended sheep, al-Sham­mary is now a 42-year-old lib­eral fem­i­nist who roots her ar­gu­ments in Islam, tak­ing on Saudi Ara­bia’s pow­er­ful re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment.

She has paid a price for her opin­ions. She spent three

months in prison with­out charge for “ag­i­tat­ing pub­lic opin­ion”. She has been barred by the gov­ern­ment from trav­el­ling abroad. Her co-founder of the on­line fo­rum, Free Saudi Lib­er­als Net­work, blog­ger Raif Badawi, is serv­ing a 10-year prison sen­tence and was publicly lashed 50 times. Her fa­ther dis­owned her in pub­lic.

None of it was enough to keep her quiet.

“I have rights that I don’t view as against my re­li­gion,” says alSham­mary. “I want to ask for these rights, and I want those who make de­ci­sions to hear me and act.”

Across the Arab world, fe­male Is­lamic schol­ars and ac­tivists have long been push­ing for in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Shariah law that al­low women more free­dom. They hold that Islam con­sid­ers men and women as equals be­fore God, but cen­turies of se­lec­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion have twisted its spirit.


“Dis­crim­i­na­tion came from a read­ing of the re­li­gion, not the re­li­gion it­self,” says Olfa Youssef, a pro­fes­sor of Is­lamic stud­ies in Tu­nisia and mem­ber of the Mu­sawah global move­ment of Mus­lim fem­i­nists.

Al-Sham­mary is one of the most vo­cal and high-pro­file re­li­gious and women’s-rights ac­tivists within Saudi Ara­bia. Ad­vo­cates here are de­mand­ing an end to so-called male guardian­ship rules that es­sen­tially treat women as mi­nors, and re­cently sent a pe­ti­tion to King Sal­man that gar­nered about 14,700 sig­na­tures.

“She’s very sure of what she’s say­ing – she doesn’t hes­i­tate,” says Sa­har Nassief, a friend and fel­low Saudi ac­tivist. “She lit­er­ally comes from a Be­douin en­vi­ron­ment, a desert en­vi­ron­ment. She’s very proud of her back­ground, but this makes her a bit blunt with ev­ery­one and very blunt in what she says.”

The bold­ness is ev­i­dent in how she looks and car­ries her­self.

At a lit­tle past 10 p.m., alSham­mary ar­rives at a re­laxed rooftop restau­rant in the coastal city of Jiddah in a mul­ti­coloured abaya, the loose robe all women in Saudi Ara­bia must wear in pub­lic. But un­like the black abayas of most, hers is a rain­bow of gold, beige and bronze stripes. Her auburn-dyed hair, in­fused with sub­tle but trendy streaks of blue, pur­pose­fully and wil­fully peaks out from un­der a loosely wrapped tan head­scarf. Her pink lip gloss is shiny, her nails painted dark red.

She coun­ters what she calls the views of some women that all of life is just for “wor­ship, wor­ship, wor­ship”.

“You can wear lip­stick and take care of your looks,” she says. “I would say to them: This isn’t for­bid­den.”

Al-Sham­mary grew up the daugh­ter of a peas­ant farmer in Ha’il, a land­locked prov­ince north of the cap­i­tal, Riyadh. As the el­dest of 12 chil­dren, she was in charge of the sheep.

She was not just re­li­gious but a prac­tis­ing Salafi, a Mus­lim who ad­heres to a lit­er­al­ist in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Shariah. She even had lean­ings to­wards Sayyid Qutb, whose books are banned across much of the Arab world be­cause ex­trem­ists use them to jus­tify killing Mus­lims and nonMus­lims alike.

She was deeply af­fected by the wars in Afghanistan and Bos­nia, where Mus­lim men and boys were mas­sa­cred. It was also at this time that the Sahwa Move­ment, or Is­lamic Awak­en­ing, was reach­ing its peak in Saudi Ara­bia. Con­ser­va­tives de­manded a big­ger role for the clergy in gov­ern­ment, and stu­dents no longer sang folk songs or per­formed tra­di­tional dance in schools. Women be­gan wear­ing the full face veil even in com­mu­ni­ties where it wasn’t the cus­tom. Seg­re­ga­tion of the sexes be­came more en­trenched.

Al-Sham­mary had lit­tle ex­po­sure to the out­side world in Ha’il. There were no malls, no satel­lite tele­vi­sion re­ceivers and no movie the­atres in sight. Her hobby was lis­ten­ing to the news bul­letin on the ra­dio, writ­ing it out and read­ing it back to her fa­ther. She also lis­tened to con­ser­va­tive ser­mons on tapes shared among neigh­bours and friends.

“Around the world, stars are artists, ac­tors, co­me­di­ans, mu­si­cians. Our stars were re­li­gious men,” she says.

She grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Ha’il with a de­gree in Is­lamic stud­ies and be­came a pub­lic-school teacher. She spanked girls if she heard them singing and worked closely with other women to raise money for Sunni ji­hadis in Afghanistan fight­ing Com­mu­nist Soviet forces.

At 17, she mar­ried a man twice her age from the same tribe, who of­fered her fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity. She had a girl, Yara, and was di­vorced at 20.

She re­mar­ried to the chief judge in Ha’il who had over­seen her di­vorce pro­ceed­ings, a man of promi­nence and re­li­gious stature as head of the Shariah courts there. He had other

wives and chil­dren, even grand­chil­dren. Most im­por­tantly, though, he had no ob­jec­tions to her daugh­ter stay­ing with her.

“He was older than my fa­ther,” she says. “It wasn’t love but a feel­ing of se­cu­rity.”

In the end, it did not pro­tect her.


Al-Sham­mary’s jour­ney to ac­tivism be­gan on the day her daugh­ter was taken from her.

Al­most as soon as Yara turned seven, her ex-hus­band gained cus­tody. Since alSham­mary had re­mar­ried, the court ruled that the girl should live with her fa­ther rather than in a house with an­other man.

“When they took her and said, ‘This is Al­lah’s will’ and ‘This is Islam’, this is when my in­ter­nal rebellion was sparked,” says alSham­mary. “There is no way that there is a God in this uni­verse that would ac­cept this in­jus­tice and this pain on the ba­sis that I am a woman.”

Her ex-hus­band re­jected tribal me­di­a­tion as an al­ter­na­tive. Her hus­band, the judge, re­fused to in­ter­fere, and wouldn’t al­low her to ap­peal, cit­ing Shariah law. Her par­ents backed the court’s de­ci­sion and told her to be pa­tient – it was the path to heaven.

Dur­ing long walks in Ha’il’s hills and farms, al-Sham­mary stood un­der the open sky, re­fus­ing to be­lieve that God could want a mother sep­a­rated from her child.

For eight years, she fought her par­ents, her com­mu­nity and any­one who stood be­tween her and Yara, whom she wasn’t able to see. She talked about the case in tele­vi­sion in­ter­views. She tried sev­eral times to whisk her daugh­ter away af­ter school, but was al­ways stopped by au­thor­i­ties. Her ex­hus­band moved Yara to a farm out­side the city to live in iso­la­tion with her grand­mother.

“I be­came crazy, but in front of my par­ents and my hus­band the judge, and the tribal com­mu­nity around him, and be­cause of my po­si­tion in the com­mu­nity and my name, I was ex­pected to just sit like this and be a hero,” she says, mak­ing an ex­pres­sion­less face and clasp­ing her hands.

She had five chil­dren from her sec­ond mar­riage, but it wasn’t long be­fore she was di­vorced for a sec­ond time. And noth­ing made up for the loss of Yara.

“I prayed for a mir­a­cle to come down from the sky,” she says. “I’d open the Ko­ran. From the first verse on the first page to the last verse on the last page, there isn’t a sin­gle thing that says keep a daugh­ter from her mother.”

When Yara’s fa­ther fell ill and the grand­mother passed away, he fi­nally al­lowed her, then 16, to live with her mother again. Al-Sham­mary re­lo­cated to the more lib­eral city of Jiddah with all her chil­dren fi­nally un­der one roof.

She used her knowl­edge of Shariah by try­ing her hand at be­ing a le­gal ad­viser for women in need, whom she had power of at­tor­ney to rep­re­sent in court. She grew im­pa­tient with the ju­di­cial sys­tem, cer­tain that it came down to per­sonal con­nec­tions or the whims of male judges.

Some­times her ad­vice was more Machi­avel­lian than pi­ous. Once she told a friend of hers to wear some make-up, find out which judge was slated to over­see her case, and then cry in front of him and plead for her court date to be moved up. It worked.


She shared her thoughts on­line on how Islam sees peo­ple, in­clud­ing women, as born free and equal. She be­gan read­ing about lib­er­al­ism. Al­though many in Saudi Ara­bia equate lib­er­al­ism with heresy, al-Sham­mary be­gan de­scrib­ing her­self as a lib­eral, say­ing it was “a trans­la­tion of the spirit of Islam”. So be­gan a war of words – and of images. Af­ter she posted the pic­tures of men with beards, she was called a hyp­ocrite, a dis­be­liever, wicked and evil. Sheikh Ab­dul­lah al-Ma­nee, a mem­ber of Saudi Ara­bia’s high­est re­li­gious coun­cil, de­scribed her as “ma­li­cious” and called for her speedy trial. He told the state-linked Sabq news­pa­per that “Souad al-Sham­mary is a crim­i­nal and she will be held ac­count­able for her trans­gres­sions against the prophet”.

Her out­spo­ken­ness and her ap­pear­ances on tele­vi­sion talk shows with­out a face veil were not easy on her fam­ily in Ha’il. Her younger brother, Fayez, re­calls be­ing told by a com­mu­nity elder: “You aren’t a man. How can you al­low your sis­ter to be­have like this?”

Fayez says he left Ha’il for about seven years be­cause the com­ments be­came un­bear­able. His mar­riage pro­posal to a girl from an­other tribe was re­jected be­cause of his sis­ter’s rep­u­ta­tion. He also came to blows with one of his younger brothers who cursed her fla­grant dis­re­gard for so­cial norms, with the two end­ing up in the hos­pi­tal.

He de­scribes the mo­ment she posted pic­tures on­line with her hair show­ing.

“She opened a door that I couldn’t de­fend,” he said. Even Yara op­posed her at first. “I was some­how against the idea. Like, Mom, you are an ac­tivist? You are a hu­man­rights ac­tivist? You are women’s ac­tivist? What does that even mean?” Yara asked. “I was so, so scared.”

Kids at school would taunt her sons. In turn, they some­times lashed out against their mother, says Fayez. Yara said they sup­port their mother but also ques­tion how far she has taken her ac­tivism.

De­spite prom­i­nent fig­ures call­ing for alSham­mary’s ar­rest and trial, she didn’t think it could hap­pen. She was sure she had not com­mit­ted a crime.

“I hadn’t crossed the line of Shariah,” she says. “I am a grad­u­ate of Shariah.”

The au­thor­i­ties thought oth­er­wise.


Af­ter sev­eral rounds of in­ter­ro­ga­tion, she was de­tained at the women’s sec­tion of Jiddah’s Bri­man prison on Oc­to­ber 28, 2014. She was ac­cused of ag­i­tat­ing pub­lic opin­ion. She was never tried or con­victed.

In prison, al-Sham­mary con­tin­ued her ad­vo­cacy be­hind bars, telling women that mu­sic is per­mis­si­ble and ex­plain­ing their le­gal rights. She says fe­male Mus­lim mis­sion­ar­ies be­gan ap­pear­ing in prison more of­ten, telling women their time there was the will of God. The tele­vi­sion was al­ways turned on to the re­li­gious Majd chan­nel.

Al-Sham­mary won­dered what would come first: Her read­ing the Ko­ran front to back, or her re­lease from prison.

She was re­leased from de­ten­tion on Jan­uary 29, 2015 – be­fore she could fin­ish read­ing the Ko­ran. She had to sign a pledge to re­duce her ac­tivism. And a male rel­a­tive, Fayez, had to sign for her re­lease.

She con­tin­ues to tweet to her more than 207,000 fol­low­ers, though she says she weighs her words more care­fully than be­fore. She ac­knowl­edges be­ing brash and un­wa­ver­ing by na­ture, first as a con­ser­va­tive Salafi and then as a lib­eral. Her brazen­ness, she says, is a part of her char­ac­ter.

It has also helped her suc­ceed in her goals. Fayez notes that the right of women to have their own iden­tity cards, for ex­am­ple, would not have happened with­out peo­ple like his sis­ter speak­ing out, at a cost.

Yara sup­ports her mother’s ac­tivism, al­though she still wishes al-Sham­mary would not give oth­ers am­mu­ni­tion against her by ar­gu­ing about the hi­jab or with in­flu­en­tial re­li­gious fig­ures.

“She is so en­cour­ag­ing to me,” Yara says.


Saudi women’srights ac­tivist Souad alSham­mary holds a copy from her for­bid­den book in Saudi, ‘Be­cause I’m a hu­man: The Saudi Scene from Inside’.

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