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And ladies, you must wear your abayas and your head scarves here." A groan issues from members of our tour.The women, nearly three-quarters of the 42 of us, have grown fairly accustomed to wearing the black, ankle-length abaya, but a week into our tour of Saudi Arabia, head scarves are still a chore.
“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.
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 spent three months in prison without charge for “agitating public opinion.” She has been barred by the government from traveling abroad. “I have rights that I don’t view as against my religion,” says al-Shammary.
Social authorities in Saudi Arabia can arrest anyone who talks to a person of the opposite sex who isn’t a family member.