Monday, April 19, 2004

Awareness is always the best place to start

Saudi TV Host Tackles Abuse Against Women

Mon Apr 19, 2:57 PM ET

A popular Saudi television host publicly showed her bruised and bloodied face and has shocked her compatriots into openly talking about one of the kingdom's long-hidden problems: violence against women.

Rania al-Baz has been hailed as a hero for letting newspaper photographers snap pictures of her face and for frankly discussing her case after she said a beating by her husband earlier this month left her unconscious.

Her story has been widely reported in the Saudi media. A Saudi princess stepped forward to pay al-Baz's medical bills. Representatives of the new Saudi National Human Rights Association visited her in the hospital.

Al-Baz told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Sunday that once she is back at work, she will press a violence-against-women awareness campaign.

"I know many women in Saudi Arabia are badly beaten and when I recover I will do a program addressing that," she said.

She said she also will try to tackle other topics, like rape, that are usually not publicly discussed in conservative Saudi Arabia.

Al-Baz is well know throughout the kingdom for her chatty, magazine style show, "The Kingdom This Morning." The program usually offers lighter fare and is shown on state-run Saudi Channel One.

Al-Baz's television persona warm smile wrapped in a stylish headscarf made the photographs of her wrecked face after the April 10 beating all the more startling. Al-Baz suffered 13 facial fractures required 12 operations.

"Though the photo was too gory for some people blood was dripping from her face she wanted her case to be publicized so that other battered women would be encouraged to speak up," columnist Raid Qusti wrote in the Arab News.

Qusti said that all Saudi women should salute al-Baz.

"She knew the story was going public, and she did not do that for publicity, she did it to help other women because no man has the right to beat a woman," said Arab News' editor, Khaled al-Maeena.

Al-Baz, in her 30s, said her husband of six years, singer Mohammed Bakr al-Fallatta, had beaten her before. But she said the April 10 attack was especially vicious, and that she thought he wanted to kill her.

After banging her head on the floor and the wall until she lost consciousness, al-Baz said her husband drove her to the hospital and left her at the front doors, claiming she was a victim of a traffic accident and that he was going to pick up others who had been hurt.

He then drove off and has not been seen or heard from since.

Al-Baz said she is not sure what triggered the attack. But al-Fallatta had been out of work for nearly three years and was depressed, she said. And days before the beating, he got angry when he found her watching a Lebanese TV show that featured his sister, a singer who lives in Beirut.

Police say when they find al-Fallatta, he will likely face charges of abuse and attempted murder.

For her part, Al-Baz has expressed concern about her husband, saying she hoped he would be arrested before he harms himself. But she also told the AP she will ask for a divorce and custody of their three children, one of whom, she said, witnessed the beating.

Although Islam prohibits violence against women, many believe spousal abuse is common in the almost entirely Muslim Saudi Arabia.

There are no statistics available on wife abuse in the kingdom, but husbands rarely meet disapproval for "reforming" spouses deemed "disobedient" by hitting them.

According to the U.S. State Department, "hospital workers report that many women are admitted for treatment of injuries that apparently result from spousal violence."

Nahed Bashatah, a Saudi who has written extensively about abuse of women, said al-Baz's celebrity has given her case prominence, but "there are hundreds of other abused women who nobody hears about."

Bashatah pointed out that Saudi women need to be accompanied by a male guardian even if they want to go to the police to report abuse.

Saudi law requires a woman to be accompanied by a male guardian her husband, or, for unmarried women, her father, brother or son on almost any public chore. Saudi women also are not allowed to drive.

Still, Bashatah said Saudi courts have judged in favor of abused women before.

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