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. 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 traveling 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 al-Shammary. “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 consider men and women as equals before God. Al-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,” 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.”
Al-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 practicing Salafi, 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 re-married, this time to the chief judge in Ha’il who’d overseen her divorce proceedings.
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 al-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,” says al-Shammary. “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 wasn’t able to 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 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 again.
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 as a legal adviser for women in need. Sometimes her advice was more Machiavellian than pious. Once she told a friend 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, 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 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.
Even Yara opposed her at first. And kids at school would taunt her sons. In turn, they sometimes lashed out against their mother, Fayez says.
Al-Shammary 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 onto the religious Majd channel.
She was released from detention on January 29, 2015. 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.
Yara supports her mother’s activism, although she still wishes al-Shammary would not argue against the hijab or with influential religious figures.
“She is so encouraging to me,” Yara says. “She survived stuff that you can’t survive.”