A Saudi divorcee reinterprets Islamic law for women’s rights

Sunday 20/11/2016
Souad al-Shammary checks her social media feed in Jeddah

Jeddah - When Souad al-Sham­mary posted a se­ries of tweets about 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. She pointed out that one of Islam’s staunchest critics during the time of Prophet Mohammad had an even longer beard than he did.

The comments are typical of this twice-divorced mother of six and graduate of Islamic law. Raised a devout girl in a large tribe where she tended sheep, Shammary is 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 has kept her quiet.

“I have rights that I don’t view as against my religion,” Shammary said. “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 sharia that consider men and women as equals before God. Shammary is one of the most vo­cal and high-profile religious and women’s rights activists within Saudi Arabia.

“She’s very sure of what she’s saying. She doesn’t hesitate,” said 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.”

Shammary grew up the daughter of a peasant farmer in Ha’il, a land­locked province. As the eldest of 12 children, she was in charge of the sheep. She was not just religious but a practising Salafist, a Muslim who adheres to a literalist interpre­tation of Islamic law.

She graduated from the Univer­sity of Ha’il with a degree in Islamic studies and became a public school teacher. At 17, she married a man twice her age from the same tribe. She had a girl, Yara, was divorced at 20 and then remarried, this time to the chief judge in Ha’il who had overseen her divorce proceedings.

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

Almost as soon as Yara turned 7, her ex-husband gained custody. Since Shammary 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,” Shammary said. “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.”

For eight years, she fought her parents, her community and any­one who stood between her and Yara, whom she could not see.

“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 said, making an expressionless face and clasping her hands.

She had five children from her second marriage but it was not long before she was divorced again.

When Yara’s father fell ill and the grandmother died, he allowed her, then 16, to live with her mother. Shammary moved to the more lib­eral city of Jeddah with all her chil­dren finally under one roof.

She used her knowledge of sha­ria as a legal adviser for women in need. Sometimes her advice was more Machiavellian than pi­ous. Once she told a friend to wear 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. The ploy worked.

She shared her thoughts online on how Islam sees people, includ­ing women, as born free and equal, ideas she found in line with liberal­ism. So began a war of words — and of images.

After she posted the pictures of men with beards, top clerics and other conservatives in the kingdom called her a hypocrite, a disbeliev­er, wicked and evil. 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 said 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 came to blows with one of his younger brothers who cursed her flagrant disregard for so­cial norms. The brothers ended up in the hospital.

Even Yara opposed her at first. And children at school would taunt her sons. In turn, they sometimes lashed out against their mother, Fayez said.

Shammary was detained at the women’s section of Jeddah’s Bri­man prison on October 28th, 2014. She was accused of agitating public opinion. She was never tried or con­victed.

Shammary continued her advo­cacy while in prison, telling women that music is permissible and ex­plaining their legal rights. She said female Muslim missionaries began appearing in prison more often, telling women their time there was the will of God. The television was always turned onto the religious Al- Majd channel.

She was released from detention on January 29th, 2015. She had to sign a pledge to reduce her activism and a male relative — Fayez — had to sign for her release. She continued to post on Twitter to her more than 207,000 followers, though she said she weighs her words more care­fully than before.

Yara said she supports her moth­er’s activism, although she wishes Shammary would not argue against the hijab or with influential reli­gious figures.

“She is so encouraging to me,” Yara said. “She survived stuff that you cannot survive.”

The Associated Press