"Whatever the price, I had to tell the truth"

A Saudi woman talks about what happened when she dared to challenge the society's culture of violence against women.


Ed Vulliamy
October 6, 2005 4:52AM (UTC)

By the time she was in her early 20s, Rania al-Baz had become one of the best known and best loved faces in her home country of Saudi Arabia. As presenter of a program called "The Kingdom This Morning" on state-owned television, her hair was always covered by a hijab, as is required, but her face remained uncovered, and she would choose head scarves of defiantly flamboyant colors to cover her immaculately styled hair. She became, for hundreds of thousands of Saudi women, admirable, enviable and challenging -- and, thus, an implicit threat to a society in which women are forced to cover themselves, are not allowed to drive, cannot vote or participate in political life, cannot leave home unless accompanied by a chaperone or travel without authorization from a father or husband, and cannot establish a business without a male sponsor.

Then, suddenly, on April 13, 2004, Baz disappeared from the airwaves. When she emerged two weeks later, her face was all over the newspapers, but it was barely recognizable. Her husband had savagely assaulted her, slamming her face against the marble-tiled floor of their home until it suffered 13 fractures. He was disposing of what he assumed to be her dead body when she showed signs of life and, panicking, he took her to the hospital, where doctors gave her only a 70 percent chance of survival.

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During the days in which Baz was in a coma, fighting for her life, her father took photographs of her grotesquely disfigured face. And after she recovered, she decided to permit the photographs to be published, thus doing what no woman in the kingdom had ever done. Of course, there was nothing particularly unusual about her bruises: Baz was a victim of one of the world's most common, and least punished, crimes. But in Saudi Arabia especially, Baz had shattered a wall of silence about domestic violence. The images of her grotesquely bruised and swollen face sent shockwaves through her country and around the world, casting an unwelcome but glaring spotlight on the abuse of women that thrives behind the mask of Saudi religious dogmatism. Baz would also go on to divorce her husband -- almost unheard of in Saudi Arabia, where divorce is invariably the other way around -- and win custody of her children, again in defiance of precedent.

Fifteen months after the attack that nearly killed her, Baz is in Paris, visiting for a few days. We had intended to meet in Jeddah, where she lives, but she feels safer, she says, talking outside Saudi Arabia. "It would have been hard for me, even for you maybe, to talk there -- who knows?" So instead we meet at a hotel in the Latin Quarter. This evening, she wears no hijab; she is carefully made up, her hair meticulously cut. "I love Paris," she enthuses, surveying the night. "It is a lovers' city." She and her former husband, Mohammed al-Fallatta, came here for their honeymoon. "At first," she says, "we could not be parted. He swept me off my feet."

After 12 operations, Baz has recovered her beauty -- if anything, the few scars that remain are cogent, rather than disfiguring. She sips a glass of St. Emilion and emphasizes that she is a devout Muslim. "But I do not think about who is Muslim or who is Christian -- we all come from God," she says. "None of this is about a religion; it is about society. What happened to me happens to women all over the world. But you can take what happens to women all over the world, and in Saudi Arabia, multiply it by 10.

"It is a society in which we have the worst of all worlds. We have a private, closed society according to the Bedouin tribal system, mixed with Givenchy and the invasion of technology from the West. We have the traditions of the Bedouin equipped with every technological gadget you can imagine. And then we have the people who hate anything American or Western. And all the world sees is an Arab country, full of oil and full of money."

As an ebullient teenager growing up within such a system, she says she suffered from frustration leading to depression. Her father, Yahya, was the owner of a large chain of hotels, well connected in the political and business establishment. Baz was well educated, but her natural effervescence was tempered by what society expected of a dutiful young Saudi woman. She took refuge under the wing of a beloved uncle, Hasan, who got her to role-play with a tape recorder. "He told me: 'Rania! Your voice! You should go on television!'"

Using his connections, her father secured his 19-year-old daughter a television audition. "It happened by chance that they gave me a job," she says. "If there were women working in Saudi television, they were always old and veiled. I don't think they wanted a young, beautiful lady on television, and I still don't understand why they took me on. I think at first it was because my father had connections -- only later did the man [who hired me] tell me: 'Rania, usually, the camera eats those who talk on TV. But you eat up the cameras!'

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"I had two choices before me in life: to live as a typical, good Saudi woman, or live life as I wanted to live it, as I would like to live it. Even before my accident [as she calls her ex-husband's attack], I had decided to do the second."

In 1998, Rania married Fallatta, a singer whom she met at the television studio. It was no arranged love match; it was instant attraction. After heady days of inseparability, and later marriage, Baz's career flourished, while his waned. Fallatta became "regularly violent" toward her, she says, but she was loath to take action, leave or denounce him for fear of losing custody of her three young children, as usually happens in Saudi divorce cases. "Once, I complained to my grandmother," says Baz. "I said, 'I am like his maid in the house.' And she replied straightforwardly, 'Correct, you are his maid.'"

On the night of April 12 last year, Fallatta returned home to find his wife on the telephone. "There has been innuendo that I had a lover to justify what he did," says Baz, "but that was not true. It was a female friend, and when he came in I put the phone down. We talked and he became violent -- he was a violent man, important in his own eyes, and possessive."

She pleaded with her husband not to beat her, but he punched her in the face. "I'm not going to beat you, I am going to kill you," he said. Then he began to smash her head, face down, against the floor, while a servant and their 5-year-old son watched. At the same time he was also throttling her, releasing his grip momentarily to demand that she repeat the Shahadah testimony of faith -- which Islam requires a dying person to recite -- three times: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger." Baz obediently spoke her lines until she lost consciousness.

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Fallatta then showered, changed his clothes and put what he thought was his wife's dead body into their car, driving off with the apparent intent of burying her. But as she regained partial consciousness, he panicked and dropped her off at Bugshan hospital, saying she had been involved in a car crash and that he had to hurry back to the scene to try to rescue others involved.

"I was in a coma for four days," says Baz, "during which time my father visited my bedside, refusing to believe the story about the car accident: 'What about the rest of the body?' he thought. It was obvious what had happened. When I came to, I discovered that my father had taken the photographs, and kept them. He wanted to publish them, so my husband would be punished. I said at first, 'He is my husband,' and was reluctant. I should accept my weakness, I thought. I was worried about my career, my children, my future, my reputation." But then Baz's colleagues from the television station began to visit her. "They saw my face. They were such friends, and gave me strength. They agreed with my father that I should publish the pictures and denounce my husband.

"This was my moment of dilemma. All my professional life, I had been on television, trying to get people, especially women, to talk about the day-to-day dealings of their lives. And now this has happened in my life -- and I am not going to talk about it? Can I tell their stories, but not even tell my own? So I decided that whatever the price, I had to tell the truth. I wanted to be some kind of window into what is actually happening to women in my country. I had no choice but to speak out. And so I became a voice -- the moment you describe what is going on in that country, you become a voice."

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The response to her decision to go public was momentous. Columnists in the English-language Arab News called Baz "a ground-breaker" and her decision "a sensation in this private society." A princess in the Saudi royal family paid her medical bills. But alongside the messages of support were mutterings that a woman shouldn't have been working in television, and perhaps should not have been surprised. Some papers expressed astonishment that "a woman should betray her husband." "There was only a little direct criticism of what I did, but still no one wanted to discuss the issue. No one wanted to open the Pandora's box. As with everything else in Saudi society, people do not want to discuss things openly; it is all behind closed doors."

Fallatta, who had gone into hiding, eventually gave himself up. With an initial charge of attempted murder reduced to grievous assault, he was sentenced to 300 lashes and six months in jail. At first, he refused to sue for divorce (it is almost unheard of for a woman to divorce a man in Saudi Arabia), calling Baz "an unfit mother,",but a court ordered him to do so. As part of the settlement, his prison sentence was halved after Baz publicly pardoned him and waived a compensation suit. The pardon, she now confirms, "was only in order to secure custody of the children" -- a very rare achievement for a divorced woman in Saudi Arabia.

The consequence of Baz's decision to speak out is that she has become a curious mix of celebrity and outcast; she is openly admired by some, regarded as a dissident by others. Having planned to return to work as soon as she recovered, she found herself unwelcome in television. "And this kills me," she says. She wonders about going into business of some kind, or whether she should leave the country, whether she could find work in the West. "After all, one has to have a job."

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"I feel completely outside my own country and society because of what it is, and because of what I did. Sometimes, this is painful -- I could have provided my children with a better future if I had been quiet about what happened. I live with a kind of fear, and with an internal struggle. I have to find some compromise: between my own position and telling my story in order to get the attention of people internationally and at home. Sometimes I ask myself: 'Who are you to be telling your story like this?'"

For all her moments of doubt, Baz has fundamentally challenged the culture of silence in her country over violence against women. "In our country, if a woman complains to the police or a member of the family that her husband is violent, she is told to be patient, men are like that. What will the neighbors say? What will your family and friends say? Do nothing, otherwise he will divorce you. You will be a divorced woman, a whore; you will lose your future. So if a woman is abused, there is this mixture of humiliation and pride. She is afraid of speaking out, of being criticized. She wants to keep this perfect image of a woman.

"And this is what we have to change among women. We have to change ourselves, to awaken women who think that for her husband to beat her is normal, and that she must remain silent in public."

In May, thanks largely to Baz's stand, the first-ever research study on domestic violence in Saudi Arabia was completed at King Saud University in Riyadh, uncovering a terrifying culture of abused women, invariably silent, 90 percent of whom had seen their own mothers similarly abused. Rania "has become iconic," says her lawyer, Omar al-Khouli, who works with the local branch of the National Committee for Human Rights. "Hers was the first case the committee handled, and now more and more women are demanding their rights after her case -- not just over domestic violence but the whole system of discrimination in our society."

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"The crucial thing," says Baz, "is that the structure of society -- the fact that a woman cannot drive or travel without authorization, for example -- gives a special sense of strength to the man. And this strength is directly connected to the violence. It creates a sense of immunity, that he can do whatever he wants, without sanction. The core issue is not the violence itself, it is this immunity for men, the idea that men can do what they like. It is the society of which the violence is an expression."

Baz is in Paris also to see the publisher of a memoir, published in French this month. As we meet, she is carrying a thick, unwrapped, disarrayed Arabic manuscript written in red Biro pen. "The book is in itself another big step for me to take," she says. "Another taboo, another road to take. Just to publish a book about what has happened will have further consequences for me in Saudi Arabia. Yes, I am nervous about those consequences. The whole situation is very delicate back there. When the book is published, the issue of what I did will be raised all over again. All the questions will be asked again.

"In the end, I may lose my fight," she reflects in a rare moment of stillness, her hands frozen for a moment in midair. "But at least I did not accept things the way they are."


Ed Vulliamy

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