Women Speaking Out in Saudi Arabia

Saudi women stand behind a fence during a ceremony as part of the morning Eid Al-Fitr prayer at Turki bin Abdullah grand mosque in Riyadh on August 8, 2013. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images) Saudi women stand behind a fence during a ceremony as part of the morning Eid Al-Fitr prayer at Turki bin Abdullah grand mosque in Riyadh on August 8, 2013. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi women stand behind a fence during a ceremony as part of the morning Eid Al-Fitr prayer at Turki bin Abdullah grand mosque in Riyadh on August 8, 2013. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Nine years have passed since the people of Saudi Arabia were shocked by newspaper photos of the battered, swollen face of Rania Al-Baz, a well-known television newscaster. Her ghastly injuries were inflicted by her husband, who beat her nearly to death. When she and her father released the pictures to the media, they forced into the arena of public discussion a subject that had long been kept quiet: domestic abuse. That was a family matter, and until recently family matters were kept within the family.

Now, the transformation of attitudes that began with those photos has brought a landmark change in Saudi policy. On August 26, the Cabinet gave final approval to a new law that makes domestic abuse a criminal offense punishable by a year in jail and a fine of up to USD 13,300.

News accounts credited a campaign begun earlier this year by the King Khalid Foundation with creating momentum for the Cabinet’s decision, but it was Rania Al-Baz who broke the taboo and made that campaign possible. That an official foundation would take up the cause is all the more striking because many religious scholars have interpreted Sura 4, Verse 34 of the Qu’ran as permitting husbands to strike disobedient wives.

Over the past decade, Saudis have begun to talk openly about—and demand action on—social problems that were previously kept behind the walls of the family compound. Topics such as Down Syndrome, child neglect and urban poverty are aired in the news media and addressed by government officials. This transformation is the result of widespread education of women, greater use of the Internet and social media, and a generally tolerant attitude from the Saudi government of calls for social change that do not challenge or threaten the stability of the country.

Women such as Maha Juffali Al-Ghandour, who runs a school for children with Down Syndrome and campaigns tirelessly for their acceptance by society, and Reem Ass’ad, who led a successful campaign to have women replace men as sales staff in lingerie shops, are well-known and popular figures.

Until 2004, Rania Al-Baz appeared regularly on the television program The Kingdom this Morning, her hair covered but her face unveiled. Then she suddenly disappeared from the screen. She was in a hospital, in a coma and near death, after her husband beat her so violently that she suffered thirteen fractures in her skull and facial bones. He was attempting to dispose of her body when she stirred, and he delivered her to the hospital in a panic, telling doctors she had been in an auto accident.

Her father refused to believe that, and his camera recorded the evidence. Going public with the photos was a difficult decision, but Baz said she felt she had no choice.

“All my professional life,” she told the Guardian newspaper in 2005, “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."

Her husband went to jail, even though spousal abuse was not then a crime, and was ordered to divorce her. So great was the public outrage over the brutality that she won custody of their children, a rare outcome in Saud Arabia.

Baz’s popularity soon faded, however, overpowered by the criticism and backbiting that often befalls women who break tradition in Saudi Arabia. Even Eman Al-Nafjan, a popular blogger known as “SaudiWoman” who is usually a voice of enlightenment, blasted her for appearing on foreign television programs without her headscarf, as well as for what Nafjan described as “criticism” of Saudi Arabia during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Even if it is true that her fellow Saudis hold Baz in high esteem, that no longer matters. What matters is that the issue she forced onto the national agenda took on a life of its own.


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