One Saudi Arabian Woman's Story: "My Divorce Meant Risking Death"

Photo: Jaroslav Monchak / Shutterstock
One Saudi Arabian Woman's Story: "My Divorce Meant Risking Death"
Heartbreak

Rania al Baz, 31, is chain-smoking in her publisher's office in Paris. Effusive and charming, she wears a décolleté shirt over her black pants. Her publicist looks in every so often with requests for interviews, to which she agrees good-naturedly.

Two years ago, al Baz seemed like the model of a modern Saudi woman.

A popular television personality, she was her country's first young female newsmagazine anchor. Then, in a story that made global headlines, she went public with her private nightmare, fascinating and horrifying both her fellow Saudis and the rest of the world.

One night in April 2004, her husband beat her almost to death.

After four days in a coma, al Baz resurfaced, her face smashed, with a growing determination to show the world what had been done to her. She let the press have photos taken in her hospital room.

Though domestic violence is a problem without borders, al Baz's revelations — and the book she has written about her life leading up to what she calls her "accident"—shattered Saudi taboos and provided an invaluable look at the dynamics between men and women in that country.

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Saudi Arabia is the strictest, most closed society in the Muslim world. In criminal cases, women's testimonies are not allowed, for example, and in civil cases, a woman's testimony is given far less weight than a man's.

Moving to Paris, al Baz has become an advocate for Muslim women's rights, avidly absorbing life in the West. But while her new freedom brings her strength, it also leads her farther from her country and her identity.

Even as a teenager, she had a rebellious streak. At 16, when her father decided she should marry, she chose a man he disapproved of, simply as a way of asserting herself. "My father is very strong, and he only wanted us to listen and say he was right and the rest of us were wrong," she says. "I wanted to go against my father"s words."

al Baz had no idea what to expect from marriage, though.

In her book, she writes, "Love stories are unwelcome in Saudi Arabia. The term 'love' is proscribed; one is not allowed to talk about it or evoke it. It would be indecent, immoral." Since the only men she had known were her father, brother, and uncle, "I just behaved with my husband as I did with my father. I felt I had to learn from him and listen to him. I obeyed him."

But after she gave birth to a daughter, her husband left her. "He wanted a woman, not a girl," she explains. "I was still a girl when I divorced."

At 18, as a "repudiated" woman, al Baz was forced back into the family enclave. Luckily, a friend encouraged her to try out at the state television station, which was looking to change its image. By her early twenties, she was the unveiled anchor of The Kingdom This Morning, and one of her country's most familiar faces.

It was in the corridors of the TV station that al Baz met singer Mohammed al-Fallatta, who would become her second husband. He pursued her, relentlessly asking her father for her hand in marriage. Al Baz's father became so incensed, she says, that he locked her up for two months and told the station she was ill.

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But al-Fallatta continued in his pursuit until al Baz's father relented. Al Baz agreed to the marriage because "the status of divorcée meant I was completely shut into the house, and under my father's rule." She hoped love would follow.

"Women in my country learn to love after they have married. I remember with my second husband I made up stories in my head to make myself think I loved him. If he went away on a trip I would tell myself I missed him, and would prepare for his return by making myself beautiful. I would make myself feel."

But while al Baz's career progressed, al-Fallatta's was far less successful.

Envious, possessive, and jealous, he began to beat her the first year of their marriage.

"When I slept, I turned my back to him," she says. "I lived with this man for eight years and thought about how I could divorce him every day. But there was no chance of leaving him because I would have had to return to my father and it would have been worse."

She had two children with al-Fallatta, hoping this would reassure him. But, she says, he remained largely indifferent to the kids. His jealousy reached a climax one night when he found her on the phone with a woman friend. He began to beat her, making her recite a prayer that, in Islam, a dying person is required to repeat three times.

As she recovered, physically and emotionally, from the beating, al Baz had a guardian angel: Saudi princess Sara Al-Angari.

Encouraging al Baz to speak out, the princess provided financial support for numerous reconstructive surgeries and the political clout to help al Baz not only divorce her husband but also obtain custody of her children — which is extremely rare in Saudi Arabia.

In France, al Baz was taken under the wing of Ni Putes Ni Soumises ("Neither Whores Nor Submissive"), an organization founded by young Muslim women from the working-class suburbs.

The Saudi reaction to her crusade has been complex. "People considered the book to be shameful and critical," she says. "But those who think I'm an embarrassment should be all the more militant about getting things to change." One result of her experience is that her mother, whom al Baz describes as the perfect wife, left her husband of 32 years. "All this time my father was authoritarian with her. She never talked back. After my accident, my mother felt like she was choking. She was ready. She left with only the clothes on her back."

In Disfigured, al Baz writes that Saudi women "are merely the shadows of our fathers, our brothers, and our husbands." But she is adamant on one point: "The unjustified discriminations that we are subjected to daily are revolting and have nothing to do with Islam. I don't know in whose name we cannot obtain an identity card or a passport without our father or husband's accord."

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As for romance, al Baz sighs, and says, "Don't ask me about love because I'm zero in the matter and have never loved any man."

Then she pauses, adding wistfully: "My friends hope that I could have a relationship with a European or a Lebanese man."

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Editor's Note: This article was originally posted on April 5, 2006 and was updated with the latest information.