Boldly Unveiling A Dark Secret

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abuse saudi arabia
CBS
Domestic violence against Arab women was always a taboo subject until one woman's bravery shed some light on it, reports CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar.

This was the story that scandalized Saudi Arabia and tore the veil off the taboo subject of domestic violence.

Rania al Baz was beaten nearly to death, and she was courageous enough to go public.

"He told me, 'I'm not coming to beat you. I am coming to kill you.' He grabbed me by the neck and flung me to the ground," she says.

For six years, she had been the very popular host of Saudi television's morning show.

And what happened to her familiar face at the hands of her abusive husband prompted debate across the Arab world.

Al Baz suffered 13 broken bones and needed nine operations to rebuild her face. She needs three more.

Her story was front page news and almost before she knew it, she was the poster girl for the right of Saudi women to live without fear.

Her abusive husband argued his wife had disobeyed him, and the beating was justified.

"One may beat a wife as a punishment," Mohammed Bakr al Fallatta said.

Al Fallatta escaped a longer prison sentence when Al Baz pardoned him, in exchange for a deal ensuring she got a divorce and custody of their children. Under Saudi law, that was the choice she confronted: cut a deal or lose her children.

Her case led to debates across the Arab world – debates where incredulous women listened as men argued it is their right to administer "light beatings."

In Saudi Arabia, where women are obliged to cover up and remain for their entire lives under the guardianship of a man, what had become al Baz's campaign was both a hot potato, and to some, deeply disturbing.

"Many people, in my country, consider me an embarrassment," she says. "Many insults, so many criticisms, they said I was an agent of the Western world, that I was looking for money."

Most of her own family now shun her. She's been unable to return to television.

Even getting out of Saudi Arabia was hard. Al Baz says she was twice prevented from leaving – and was never given a reason.

Al Baz did manage to leave and is now in Paris, where she says she feels safer.

What happened to al Baz happens to many women in every culture and country. She says she opened that Pandora's Box in Saudi Arabia — a tiny crack in a very secret society where many, still, don't want to know.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com