Famed Saudi feminist slips away to Paris

Rania al-Baz was comatose for days last year after being brutally beaten by her husband.

A Saudi Arabian female journalist whose battered face publicized the problem of domestic abuse left her country hiding in a truck last weekend across the border to Bahrain, according to the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi. Rania al-Baz, 29, the Saudi TV presenter who was comatose in a hospital for days last year after being brutally beaten by her husband, was prevented by Saudi authorities from flying to Paris, where she planned to participate in a conference on women's rights and to promote her book, Defiguree, her publicist, Margaux Ferro of Michel Lafon Publishing, told The Jerusalem Post. "She had a problem," said Ferro in a phone conversation from Paris. "They said, No, you cannot fly. They didn't explain to her why." Baz arrived in Paris Monday morning after a roundabout trip overland from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain and then to Dubai. But Ferro denied that Baz had crossed into Bahrain illegally. "She found another solution a legal solution to pass by car to Bahrain and go to Dubai and then fly to Paris." Ferro weighed her words carefully before she spoke. "We have to suppose that they don't want Rania to deliver her message to the whole world that you can't treat woman like that." The French organization Mouvement Ni putes Ni soumises (Not Whores, Not Victims), the NPNS, which held the Paris conference, was equally evasive about the reasons for the travel ban. Last Saturday Baz, who is the organization's representative in the Arab world, was supposed to give a lecture on the situation of women in the Gulf States. "We expected her for three days," Franck Chaumont, a spokesman for NPNS, told the Post. "It's an administrative question. She couldn't come because of her papers. [But] we don't know." Baz, who was an announcer with Saudi Television's Channel 1, raised the issue of domestic abuse in her country after she agreed from her hospital bed in April 2004 to allow photos of her swollen black-and-blue face to be published. Never before had the issue been publicly raised in the Saudi Kingdom, which keeps its problems in private. "I want to use what happened to me to draw attention to the plight of abused women in Saudi Arabia," she told Arab News after surgery to repair one of 13 fractures to her face. But some Saudis lashed out at her appearance, saying she presented her country and Arabs in general in a bad light for showcasing the issue of domestic abuse. Championing women's causes has made it difficult for her to find work in her country, said her publicist. "She has been saying to the French media, 'Why shouldn't I work in France or in England?'" said Ferro. Thomas Lippman, an expert on Saudi Arabia and a scholar at the US-based Middle East Institute, said although discussion of domestic abuse has recently become more acceptable, her book may have crossed the Saudi government's red lines. "You never know when these discussions will be perceived by the authorities as going too far," he said. Baz is concerned about her family in Saudi Arabia, said Ferro. "She doesn't speak to me about being worried about going back there," said Ferro. "Maybe she doesn't want to say such things. Her family is there, her three children, her mother, her grandmother." Baz divorced her husband after she was released from the hospital. He was sentenced to 300 lashes and six months in prison. Baz requested his release from prison after he agreed to give her custody of their children. Since arriving in France, Baz has given several interviews on French television to raise awareness about domestic abuse and to promote her book about women in Saudi Arabia, which was published in French on September 22. Michel Lafon Publishing is now in negotiations for a English translation. Meanwhile, Baz has no imminent plans to go back to Saudi Arabia. "She has no date for returning," said Ferro. "But it's her choice."