One of Saudi Arabia’s best known feminists was arrested this week and is being held for questioning on accusations she has “insulted Islam” by advocating greater women’s rights and supporting calls for a secular society.
Souad al-Shammary has been detained at a prison in Jeddah since 28 October after being summoned for interrogation, according to a family friend.
Shammary is a co-founder of the Saudi Liberals forum and was one of the first women to defend legal cases in court. She has played a prominent role in a campaign for women to be allowed the right to drive and regularly appears in the media to debate feminist issues.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where it is illegal for women to drive. Authorities tolerate little dissent and have regularly jailed activists who call for political reform.
Religious conservatives, opposed to Shammary’s activism, are said to have filed a complaint that referred to her “calls for women’s liberation”; “demanding the separation of society from religion”; and “demanding the end of male guardianship over women”.
“Her enemies, large in number, are very well known in Saudi Arabia,” said Hassnae Bouazza, a Dutch-Moroccan writer who is a close friend of Shammary. “Religious conservatives have called for her to be arrested, even murdered, on a regular basis. The conservative clergy really hate her.”
Earlier this year Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, formerly an imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, called for Shammary to be tried for insulting the Prophet after criticising the idea – popular among religious conservatives – that Muslims should grow beards to make them distinct from nonbelievers.
The conservative Imam also said he had prayed for her to “become blind and to lose the use of a hand”.
Bouazza explained the original case against the Jeddah-based Shammary was brought in the capital Riyadh and she had refused to attend police requests for questioning.
“A few weeks ago the case was transferred to Jeddah authorities and she knew there was no way to ignore the call – she was expecting to be arrested,” Bouazza said.
Shammary’s family are unsure about how the case will progress – she is yet to appear in court – but her situation has similarities to that of Raif Badawi.
Badawi – Shammary’s co-founder of the Saudi Liberals – was sentenced to ten years in prison, 1,000 lashes and fined $266,000 earlier this year for “insulting Islam”. He was also convicted of violating the Gulf state’s technology law for setting up the Saudi Liberals website.
Shammary’s friend Bouazza acknowledged similarities with the Badawi case but expressed hope it will not have the same conclusion.
“I hope it won’t get that far [conviction] – that’s part of the reason we have gone public on her arrest. We hope it could help stop her case getting to the point where she could be convicted and face a similar punishment to Raif [Badawi],” she said.
Authorities in Saudi Arabia have not released any statements about Shammary’s arrest and did not respond to requests for comment on Friday, a public holiday in the kingdom.