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Saudis forced to confront issue of wife abuse

Graphic photos of a badly bruised and beaten Saudi TV anchorwoman have thrown the subject of widespread wife abuse into the spotlight. NBC News' Charlene Gubash reports from Riyadh on how the taboo subject is emerging from the shadows of accepted Saudi culture.
Photo of Rania al-Baz, a Saudi Television Channel One anchor, laying in a hospital bed after being beaten by her husband.  Arab News / AFP - GETTY IMAGES
/ Source: NBC News

When the swollen and bloodstained face made the front page of Saudi newspapers, people were shocked and horrified by the graphic brutality of the attack on Rania Al Baz, the attractive host of a popular family program.

She suffered 13 facial fractures and a broken nose after her husband punched her, smashed her head against the floor and walls and choked her.

In this conservative Islamic nation, her fate brought the glare of publicity to a little-discussed issue — although the resolution of the assault charges still remains uncertain.

After Al Baz had fallen unconscious for a few hours, her husband bundled her in a sheet and dropped her off at a Riyadh hospital, telling attendants she had been killed in an auto accident and he was going to bring more victims, according to Arab News interviews with medical personnel and relatives. 

Saudis were shocked that the taboo subject of wife abuse was thrust into the public domain.

Al Baz did not know that her story would make not only national, but international news. But when a photographer snapped pictures of her broken face and published them the next day, she became a symbol for women who silently suffer abuse and an instant cause celebre

Al Baz rose to the occasion, giving countless interviews with national and international media.

"I want to show women how to refuse [abuse], to show the women in the Arab world," Al Baz said, adding that men needed to be aware that they could be punished for their crime.

Taboo subject thrown under sharp light
Saudi advocates for abused women are grateful for the visibility her story has brought to a previously taboo topic and hope it will bring much-needed public and official recognition to the problem.

But to what degree Al Baz's husband will be punished is an open question. She has not yet decided whether to press charges or to seek a divorce from Mohammed Al-Falatta, the man she says repeatedly abused her and ultimately tried to kill her.

Although Al Baz will not discuss the case at the advice of her lawyer, she said that she had previously put up with her husband's abuse for the sake of her children. She feared her family would be torn apart. 

Under Saudi Arabia's version of Sharia, or religious law, in cases of divorce custody of daughters is given to fathers after the age of seven unless the father is unfit, while boys after age nine can choose which parent to live with.

Even when custody is granted to the mother, women fear the stigma and psychological trauma their children may suffer as a result of being raised without a father. 

Well-documented case unusual
But, compared to other abuse victims, Al Baz is lucky. According to her lawyer, her case is strong. Because the evidence of abuse is medically documented and her story is high profile, the courts are more likely to be sympathetic to her case.

Her attorney, Dr. Omar Al Khouly, thinks her husband could be sentenced to two-to-five years in prison. 

But Al Khouly advises most battered women to settle out of court and reconcile with their husbands because they may lose their children. He also contends that Saudi Arabia's all-male judiciary usually favors men. When women do press charges, Al Khouly said, "most judges are sympathetic to men because of their social and educational background." 

In cases where the evidence against a male defendant is too compelling for a judge to ignore, he will issue a light sentence. Al Khouly also recommends that women bring a legal representative to the court rather than risk incurring the judge's anger. 

Al Baz is also lucky because she is a successful career woman and because her parents have welcomed her into their home. 

"Many women don't have financial independence," said Dr. Samiha Haydar, head of the department of social services of a Riyadh hospital.  "Their families don't want to take them because they are a burden," said Haydar.  

Nor are there shelters for battered women. When Haydar tells women to get out of an abusive marriage they reply, "Where to?" 

Pioneer in abuse counseling
There are no statistics on incidents of spousal abuse in Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. State Department reports "that although Sharia (Quranic law) prohibits abuse and violence against innocent people, including women… such violence and abuse appear to be common problems." 

Haydar, for her part, has been counseling abused women since the '80s.

In 1997, she pioneered a program of intervention and counseling where battered women either come to her or are referred to her by nurses alert to suspicious injuries that might indicate abuse. She follows up by meeting repeatedly with family members. 

"If we can save one life, it's worth it," said Haydar. After counseling, about 60 percent of her clients stop abusing their wives.

Although she only sees 2-6 cases a month, Haydar believes many more women are unwilling to report abuse because of the social stigma. 

"It tarnishes the family name, and in Saudi Arabia reputation is important."  Women fear for their children's reputation too.  "They worry nobody will want to marry their children," said Haydar.

Cultural barriers prevent reporting abuse
Wife and child abuse are considered private affairs, said psychology professor, Dr. Turki Al-Otayan. People are hesitant to intervene if a man is abusing his wife in public because they will be told it is a family affair. 

Police can bring both parties together and encourage reconciliation but can only intervene legally when a weapon is used or abuse is severe and medically documented. Only then can public prosecutors file charges against an abuser, regardless of whether charges are filed by his wife.

Also, women who do go to the police face another impediment: they must bring a "muhrim" with them, a male guardian such as a husband or close male relative. In addition, police are only recently being trained to deal with abuse cases.

It is difficult to give a reliable estimate of spousal abuse because there are no official statistics and women rarely admit to abuse. Now hospitals have been asked to report serious injuries to authorities. But initial findings are startling. 

Al-Otayan, assistant psychology professor at King Fahd Security University, has done a pilot study on family violence. He discovered that out of an initial 200 women questioned, 3 out of 4 have been beaten at least once in three years of marriage, although cases of extreme abuse such as Al Baz's are rare.

The remaining 25 percent of women have been verbally or psychologically abused. Spurred on by his results, Al Otayan is now going to expand his study to in-depth interviews with 2,000 Saudi women.

Haydar also says that sexual and physical abuse of foreign domestic labor is not uncommon.    Stories of such abuse are often reported in the local press and some embassies maintain safe houses for their citizens to escape bad working conditions. 

Haydar explained that husbands who were abused as children or who witnessed abuse of a female relative are more inclined to become abusers. Drug addiction and alcoholism also lead to abuse. Al-Otayan notes that increasing stress in society has led to increased abuse. Abuse is more prevalent among less-educated, low-income families.

Other causes are specific to Saudi culture. Haydar finds that many abusive husbands she has counseled believe they have the right to beat their wives. "She wouldn't listen to me," many abusers explain to Haydar. They resent Haydar's interference in what they consider a private family matter. 

"Men are raised to feel superior. This is how you have to treat women," explained Al-Otayan.  Boys may have seen grandmother beaten by grandfather, mother beaten by father and sister beaten by brother.

"There are no equal opportunities between wife and husband. The men want their wives to be a little less. Husbands see wives as a stereotype. He is the ruler. He tries to control the woman,”  Al-Otayan said.

Other men reinforce the behavior. "Men will sympathize and say you have the right to beat her," said Al-Otayan. Mass media also encourage the culture of violence. "A man who obeys a woman is not a man."

Although Islam generally urges husbands to treat their wives well, and to part on good terms in case of divorce, "some men misinterpret Islam and try to control women with it," contends Al-Otayan. However, Haydar has said that none of the abusive husbands she has counseled have given the Quran as a pretext for abuse.

Impact of case uncertain
While it is still uncertain what, if any impact, Al Baz's much publicized beating will have on spouse abuse in Saudi Arabia, media coverage has not waned. Middle East Broadcasting, a Saudi-based satellite channel, is doing an hour-long program on her story.

Al Baz denies that she is a hero, which she said a Western journalist has called her.

"I am not a hero, but the people who came to help me are heroes," said Al Baz. "One man hit me, but one hundred came to support me." 

Women's advocates hope that society and the government will now recognize the need to extend support and services to the many other silent victims of abuse.