Saudi TV host's beating raises taboo topic: domestic violence against Muslim women

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The news about the brutal beating of Saudi Arabian television host, Rania al-Baz, by her husband last month, serves as a wake up call to all Arab and Muslim women in the Middle East and the West.

Ms. Baz was married for six years to an abusive husband. In her husband's last violent tirade, she says that he told her he'd kill her, and forced her to recite the last rites. And he did almost kill her - her pretty face, loved by so many who watched her morning show daily, was pounded almost beyond recognition.

After days in the hospital and multiple operations, Baz has recovered enough to tell her story and denounce violence against women in her country.

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Her case is significant because open debate about such issues is rare in the Middle East, especially in conservative Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi kingdom is known for its harsh treatment of women, who are prohibited from driving or leaving their homes without their husbands, fathers, or brothers. In public, they are forced to wear suffocating black veils that cover them from head to toe, turning them into shadows of the men they walk behind. Baz wore a head scarf on her show, not a veil covering her face.

While violence toward women is not the norm in the Middle East, it does exist and there is strong bias against women.

In parts of the region, women are second-class citizens. In Kuwait, a 1963 law prohibits women from voting or running for office. Recent attempts to change this law have all failed. In remote areas of Jordan, honor killings (women murdered by family members for perceived sexual indiscretions) still take place. Some observers attribute the poor treatment of women to Islam, saying the religion allows for it. But Islam prohibits violence and discrimination against women.

More than 1,400 years ago, Islam honored women. The Koran repeatedly emphasizes equality between the sexes, stating "and for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women."

Islam gave women equal rights to engage in commerce, earn an income, and own property. Women also have the right to divorce their husbands. They can ask for divorce if physically, mentally, or emotionally abused. They can even divorce husbands who cannot fulfill their sexual needs.

The prophet Muhammad told his followers to take half of their religion from his wife Aisha. He taught that women are the twin halves of men. These were progressive ideas at a time when women were considered such socioeconomic burdens that girls were often buried alive at birth. Islam prohibited this savage practice, restoring women's honor and place in humanity.

Sadly, parts of the Middle East have regressed to pre-Islamic times.

So, if Islam is not the cause of such mistreatment, what is?

Cultural practices and overly patriarchal societies - which vary from one country to another - are what dictate a woman's place in this region.

In Syria, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, for example, women enjoy many liberties and are active in education, government, politics, and the economy. Nonetheless, abuse and discrimination exist as well.

Some governments are beginning to pay attention to the plight of women. Jordan's Queen Rania has led the cause, holding Arab women's conferences and meeting with the media to promote discussion of women's issues.

In Morocco, King Mohammed VI has encouraged reform of family laws, to make them more favorable toward women. Recently, Egyptian women won the right to ask for a divorce.

While these are positive steps toward equality, Middle Eastern society must further strive to restore the respect and dignity that Islam awarded women so long ago.

First, the Koran and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad must be reexamined to address today's needs. Muslim academics and imams at mosques must take the lead in condemning such un-Islamic acts as Baz's beating - acts that have been allowed to continue unpunished for too long.

Second, neutral organizations must be created to provide women in need a place to turn. The United States is an excellent model, even though it has its own problems with domestic violence. Women must be empowered financially, politically, and legally to organize battered women's shelters, emergency hot lines, and free legal representation for those confronted with an abusive spouse.

Third, Arab women must cooperate with their male counterparts to help achieve freedom and equality. Change needs the whole of society, not just half of it, and women must reach out to all sectors to extinguish negative stereotypes and improve the laws governing them within each country.

Rania al-Baz courageously broke the taboo against discussing such issues in Saudi Arabia. Her call for help is a call for all abused women in the Middle East.

Arab and Muslim women, in the Middle East and the West, must answer that call and spread her message against violence.

Souheila al-Jadda is a freelance writer from San Jose, Calif. She writes about Islam and the Middle East.

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