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.

WOMEN’S FREE­DOM

“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.

AC­TIVISM

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.

WAR OF WORDS AND IMAGES

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.

AR­REST

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.

AP PHO­TOS

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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