After two years Saudi feminist Malak “Angel” al-Shehri is once again being pursued by the Saudi government while she continues to fight for her husband’s release from a Saudi Arabian prison.
Al-Shehri was released from a Saudi jail cell four year ago and fled to the United States two years ago. According to the Saudi government she is an official enemy of the state, because she is a popular feminist.
She has more than 47,000 followers on Twitter, which was probably helpful for her when she was arrested, but also may have led to the arrest of her husband.
Ayman al-Drees, 32, al-Shehri’s husband, was ”forcibly disappeared” during a Saudi government crackdown on activists on April 5.
“I am so dangerous to them, the Saudi government, because I am so vocal and I have a lot of respect from women, and they see me as an idol to them,” al-Shehri said in an interview on Tuesday in Bowling Green. “I am somehow an opinion leader to them and they have respect for me, and that’s seen as dangerous.”
He is also a Saudi citizen and a 2016 graduate of Bowling Green State University.
The business management graduate was humble and well liked. He believed in what the Saudi Arabian government called feminism. He translated some feminist documents. The activists who were arrested were all considered intellectuals: writers, journalists and translators.
Today, as far as his wife knows, no official charges have been made against him, he is still awaiting a trial and sitting in a Saudi prison.
She has been told that he is being treated well, which is possible, because she was.
“I really don’t know how he’s doing, because they have told me nothing,” al-Shehri said. “I have had no contact with him. Not even one phone call.”
She worries. She has heard stories from the families of other men who were arrested around the same time. They have related stories of physical torture and interrogation with electric shocks.
“They can be released tomorrow. They can stay for years. They can get executed. Nothing is clear with the government. They don’t tell you what they are going to do with them. People ask when he is going to be released. I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” al-Shehri said. “So he’s in a political prison and no one knows. They don’t provide you with info. They don’t provide you with what’s going to happen to him.”
She is pretty sure that she is unofficially monitored by the government.
“My phone got hacked many times, and even my Twitter account.”
The Twitter account is the primary way Saudi women receive her feminist message.
Some changes have happened for Saudi women, but they are not as big as they are portrayed in the media, al-Shehri said.
“I got arrested in 2016 because I protested against the black veil, the black dress, and I posted my picture on Twitter,” she said. “I’m the first one who made a statement against it, like it’s an oppression tool.”
Al-Shehri was arrested in December 2016 and held for five days, because she posted a photograph on social media without her hijab or abaya, the long outer robe that is meant for modesty by hiding a woman’s shape. She was wearing a regular jacket and sunglasses. The photo was seen as a feminist protest, because of her public stand on women’s issues.
Mohammad Bin Salman, the heir to the Saudi throne, has been applauded in the west for his relaxing of the traditional standards required for women, most prominently by allowing women to drive.
“I was lucky to get arrested for five days only. At the time, they cared about their reputation and Mohammad Bin Salman was not having his hands everywhere,” al-Shehri said. “At the time they were just advertising for Mohammad Bin Salman to be the open-minded one.”
Al-Shehri was released without physical torture.
“As for my case, it is still open,” she said. “They want me to show up in court. The government keeps sending me texts because they reopened my case after two years, while I have been in the U.S. and asked me to show up in the courts.
“With all of their advertising that the abaya is not a big deal and the hijab is not a big deal, after all that the government has also reopened the case after two years.”
She has no idea what she would be facing, if she did return.
There may not have been physical torture for her in prison, but there was regular humiliation and insults. She was forced to fully cover her face and body and left in handcuffs and ankle restraints until the judge had them removed during her court appearance.
She was forced to sign statements without being allowed to read them and was not allowed to have a lawyer.
Lashes in the public square are one possibility if she returns.
“I’ve been facing that. I don’t know. Whatever they want to do to you. There are no rules. The judge can do with you whatever he wants to do with you, whatever he thinks. We don’t have a Constitution or law. It’s all up to the judge, and the judge there is not independent, especially if your case is political. He will do whatever the government will tell him to do.”
In court, they removed her restraints and made a show of comparative respect.
“They knew the world was watching and they were scared that I was going to talk to someone. Nowadays they don’t care anymore. The system doesn’t care about the image or reputation.”
“At the time I had been promised that I’d be released. I’ve never been treated well and I don’t think I deserved what I got and I’m not going to say one good thing about it, because ‘Oh, the bad guy treated me well.’ I don’t think that’s fair because the whole thing was horrible,” al-Shehri said.
Today, the law allows women to drive, but only if the guardian allows it, and there are no domestic abuse laws, she said.
“Now we have privileged and unprivileged women. Now the government gives the guardian, the male of the family, a huge amount of power on his woman,” al-Shehri said.
The backslide in women’s rights coincides with other rights crackdowns. Mohammad Bin Salman has since been accused of being behind the 2018 killing of government critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which a bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress has demanded accountability.
Families are not talking about the arrests and many of the names of the arrested have not been published.
“Even me, I get scared sometimes, that I will say something critical, in a very honest way, that they will actually punish my husband,” al-Shehri said.
She married Ayman in April 2017 and in May 2018 the first wave of crackdowns on feminists took place. She left Saudi Arabia soon after, because of the perceived danger. Her husband did not leave.
She has a permit to work, and hopes to get a better paying job utilizing her formal education. She has a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory sciences, which she received in Saudi Arabia, and a master’s degree, which she earned in California, in health informatics.
“Living here changed me a lot,” al-Shehri said. “I lived better here as a woman. I saw like it’s possible, and that’s how I should be treated.
“The power I’m against right now is really big. I’m small in this big game. What really hurts is that I can’t help the one that I love.”