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 in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
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 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 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., al-Shammary arrives at a relaxed rooftop restaurant in the coastal city of Jiddah in a multi-colored 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 willfully 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 practicing Salafi, a Muslim who adheres to a literalist interpretation of Shariah. She even had leanings toward Sayyid Qutb, whose books are banned across much of the Arab world because extremists use them to justify killing Muslims and non-Muslims 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 theaters 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 neighbors 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’d 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 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.”
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 ex-husband 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 Quran. 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 makeup, 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 human rights 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 al-Shammary'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 onto the religious Majd channel.
Al-Shammary wondered what would come first: Her reading the Quran front to back, or her release from prison.
She was released from detention on January 29, 2015 — before she could finish reading the Quran. 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. “She survived stuff that you can't survive.”