Where Divorce Means Risking Death


Raina al Baz's divorce exposes a number of women's rights issues in her native Saudi Arabia.

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. 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, to be published in the U.S. later this year, 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.

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