No laughing matter: Souad Al-Shammary and the Saudi clergy


By Elham Manea

She made a joke about a beard and the medieval clergy went berserk; apparently they do not have a sense of humour.

Now she is in prison charged with, and I am not making this up, ‘publicly calling for the liberation of Saudi women and the separation of religion from the government’.

Are these the accusations of a just, modern, functioning society?

Another charge was added to the list: ‘denial of holiness of clergy’. The last charge gives an indication of the type of theocratic system we are talking about.

No matter. Now she is awaiting trial just as her famous blogger friend Raif Badawi did – for apostasy. Now the same clergy, who think they are holy, will judge her.

She is Souad Al-Shammary, a Saudi women’s rights activist, co-founder of the Saudi Liberal Network; the first female lawyer in Saudi Arabia to present a case in front of the courts, and an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights in the kingdom.

And yes, she is a harsh critique of the Saudi clergy, and with good reasons, one should add. Her daughter, who is campaigning for her release told me:

“She criticises the clergy for making our [women’s] daily life so complicated in the name of Islam – no driving, no sport activities in girls school, treating you as a minor even if you are in your thirties; you need a male guardianship for almost everything. So the clergy claim she insults Islam.”

In fact, she is only criticising their reactionary interpretation.

This is Souad Al-Shammary.

Her joke, on the other hand, was about the beard.

Wahhabi clergy have a worldview that insists on separating Muslims from non-Muslims. They consider a Muslim – Sunni male – supreme. To differentiate him from non-Muslims, they call on him to grow a long beard.

Souad Al-Shammary, known for her witty clarity, spotted a contradiction and called the idea ‘silly’. She tweeted that ‘Jews, priests, Communists and Marxists’ also wear beards.

Imaging Karl Marx and his beard and the picture becomes clear. You might be smiling by now. I did too when I read the tweet and re-tweeted it myself, but then that was exactly the problem: her twitter account has more than one hundred thousand followers, most of them in Saudi Arabia. They too were smiling!

The joke was not considered a joke by the Saudi establishment. From their perspective it was a destabilising threat. And they were right.

Consider the argument of Dorothea Weniger, a retired Swiss neurological scientist, who made a presentation last week in a course I give on activism and exclusions in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Region.

Basing her argument on the writings of Asef Bayat, she said that Iran (think of the Iranian ‘Happy’ YouTube incident) and Saudi Arabia’s anti-fun ethics “represent and embody a particular technique of power: a discursive shield that both legitimizes and insulates moral and political authority by binding it to what is not to be questioned. The fear of fun is about the fear of exit from the paradigm that frames and upholds the mastery of certain types of moral and political authorities.”

In other words, when the Saudi and Iranian younger generation make fun of archaic prohibitions and regulations, what they do by their jokes and politics of fun is nothing less than “challenging the Islamist moral-political authority as a paradigm of power.”

The joke was not a joke after all! It exposed the ridiculousness of a fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Most important, the moment she starts laughing about the absurd regulations of the clergy, she ceases to be afraid of its authority – the very authority upon which the Saudi regime is basing its legitimacy.

Souad Al-Shammary was challenging an order of fear with her joke. Her joke was indeed a threat to a theocratic authoritarian order.

It does not come as a surprise how deadly serious the reaction of the clergy and Saudi authorities was to her joke. One famous Sheikh insisted that she should be tried for insulting the Prophet (not the beard). As if to convince us of the seriousness of Al-Shammary’s offence, he said that he “prayed for her to become blind and to lose the use of her hand.”

The fact that he looked ridiculous with such ‘serious prayers’ did not dawn on him.

But others followed suit and said it is halal (permissive from a religious point of view) to kill her. Saudi authorities joined in: they blocked her bank account, stopped her salary, prevented her from registering one of her daughters in college, and launched a smearing campaign against her on twitter and elsewhere. A campaign of harassment was orchestrated targeting her children as well. Her daughter is understandably alarmed. She knows that her mother has been already ‘judged’: “I am terrified that someone she denies his holiness will judge her in the court,” she wrote to me.

And all of this for a joke? She had to be silenced. Her joke was no joking matter in the Saudi kingdom. It challenged its order of fear. She is in jail because she dared to joke.

Dr Elham Manea

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