BY CHRISTOPHER DICKEY AND FAIZA AMBAH
Another Kind of
Saudi television personality
was beaten unconscious. Then she did the unthinkable: she spoke out
IT WAS LATE SUNDAY AND
the kids were
asleep," remembers Rania al-Baz, one of Saudi Arabia's few women
television presenters. She and her husband were arguing, as they often
did. "The next thing I knew he was strangling me; alBaz told
"Then he threw me against the wall and banged my head down on the floor.
He told me to say the Shahadah [the Muslim prayer of last rites]
because I was going to die. I said it and fainted. The next thing I
remember, I was in the hospital."
For many battered
wives, and not only in Saudi Arabia, the story might have ended there.
But because al-Baz, 29, is a celebrity in a
country where many women aren't allowed to show their faces in public,
and because she was barely recognizable with her features fractured in
13 places, somebody took her picture. More surprising still, the Saudi
press published the gruesome image. Then, in the full glare of
international publicity, al-Baz spoke out for her rights as a woman and
"I spoke out because
I wanted [women] to know that they have rights under
Sharia that protect them from domestic
violence," says al-Baz. "I also want to say that one man beat me, but
one hundred have stood by me. My boss, my colleagues at work, my
friends, the man in the street." She had been battered before, but had
not sued for divorce for fear that she might lose custody of her two
kids. Now she tells her sons, 5 and
3 years old, that she fell down some steps,
"and if you run without being careful, this is what happens:'
Al-Baz's plight, and
her protest, are emblematic of a broader struggle that is underway in
Saudi society. It is not the stark conflict of forces that George W Bush
often envisions, between good and evil, freedom and oppression,
Western-style democracy and dictatorship. Its a struggle within Islam
over how to make Saudi Arabia a better Islamic society. People like al-Baz
and her many supporters are pushing for more equitable laws in a
society of the present, not one locked into an idealized vision of a
medieval past. Conservatives are pushing back, and bin Ladenists are
fighting a campaign of their own.
Days after al-Baz
went public with her story,
attacked one of the Saudi security service's own administrative
buildings, killing six people and wounding 148. The next night, police
fought a running gun battle with suspected terrorists in a Jidda
suburb. A claim of responsibility for the bombing, posted on a
fundamentalist Web site, was couched in the language of desert justice.
"There is not one house, neighborhood or tribe left that does not have a
blood feud [with the royal family]," it declared.
Which forces are winning? Change in Saudi Arabia may be
violent or it may come, says Rachel Bronson of the Council on Foreign
Relations, "through consultations and signals" from the royal family.
But those are often unclear, sometimes totally contradictory, and
utterly frustrating for U .S. officials worried about the stability of
world oil prices.
A survey of more than 15,000 Saudi men and women, conducted
last year with government funds, suggested that a huge silent majority
supports reforms promoted by Crown Prince Abdullah, including efforts
to give women more legal rights (such as driver's licenses) and some
tentative steps toward democracy with municipal elections. Indeed, as
winter began there was a kind of Saudi spring. People were speaking out
in the press, on the radio and on satellite TV channels. But in
December, Prince Nayef, the Interior
minister, warned a group of leading liberals that "their files were now
with him; according to a man who attended the meeting. Nayef ordered
them not to air their demands publicly, but in private discussions with
the authorities. When Nayef's warning wasn't heeded, a dozen of the most
prominent reformers were jailed. Three are still in prison.
The story of beautiful, battered Rania al-Baz hit the
papers just as the reformers needed some inspiration. "The message I
want to give is `no to violence;' al-Baz told
With her husband having surrendered to police, she and her two boys are
safe for the moment. But their struggle isn't over. A human-rights group
has provided her with a lawyer to fight for her rights and everyone
else's. At a time when a - murderous minority is trying to seize power,
many are hoping the silent majority isn't silenced once again.
AFP-GETTY IMAGES (2)
3, 2004 NEWSWEEK
07.17.07 Posted Revised