Special Dispatch - Saudi Arabia/U.S. & The Middle East
July 20, 2005
Saudi Women Angered by Oprah Winfrey Show: "We Were Portrayed as a Backward
Society That Is Violent Towards Women"
The American talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey recently did a show on "Women
Across the Globe," in which she hosted 11 women, each representing a
different country and culture. Representing Saudi Arabia was television
hostess Rania Al-Baz, who made headlines in August 2004 when she was beaten
nearly to death by her husband.(1)
The fact that Al-Baz was chosen as representative of Saudi women provoked
criticism in the Saudi press, particularly among women columnists. These
columnists claimed that the show had shown bias by portraying Saudi society
as oppressing women; they also argued that Rania Al-Baz's appearance on the
show damaged the reputation of all Saudi women. They argued that violence
against women is not a phenomenon unique to Saudi Arabia, but is rather a
global problem and, furthermore, that the situation of Saudi women is better
than that of women in the U.S.
In contrast to these voices, one woman columnist wrote that instead of being
defensive and ascribing ulterior motives to others, Saudis should enter into
a dialogue with the West in order to discover the truth about Saudi
As for Rania Al-Baz herself, Essam Al-Ghalib, who claimed that he was the
one who had facilitated Al-Baz's appearance on the show, explained in two
articles that Al-Baz had been misled, and that the excerpts used, from a
much more lengthy and detailed interview with her, had been taken out of
The following are excerpts from these and other articles on Al-Baz's
appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show:
We Couldn't Have Found an Ambassador More Incompetent than Rania Al-Baz
In her column in the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, Nahed Bastah wrote,
under the title "Our Ambassador in America," that the phenomenon of violence
against women is global and not unique to Saudi society: "Had we set out to
look for an incompetent ambassador for Saudi women, we couldn't have found a
better one than the Saudi television hostess who volunteered to present, on
the American show Oprah, the ugliest possible portrayal of Saudi women.
"The TV hostess appeared on a brief segment on a program dedicated to women
around the world who spoke about their countries. The Belgian, Icelandic,
Spanish, and other women spoke about women in their countries and about
their societies' cultures but all that the young hostess [i.e., Al-Baz]
found to say was to emphasize the story of her husband's violence...
"The videotaped segment presented old photographs of the souks in Riyadh,
and didn't show at all the large commercial centers, the wide streets, and
the skyscrapers. The camera focused exclusively on women in black robes...
"The [TV] hostess [Al-Baz] has already done a good trade in her story, and I
didn't expect her greed to lead her so far as to damage the reputation of
Saudi women, as she did in the segment she taped for the program... If she
thought that she was helping her society by discussing her struggle to
obtain her rights from her husband, she is wrong, since the segment
mentioned none of the social action [in support of her]. [Further,] the
victim [i.e., Al-Baz] didn't address the fact that our Human Rights
Association had stood by her.
"The media message sent by the segment was provocative by any definition. We
were portrayed as a backward society that is violent towards women. Things
reached the point where the hostess, Oprah, showed in the segment a
terrifying picture which was unfit for children to see. She is right: There
is no picture more horrible than the photos of our TV hostess in the
hospital after having been beaten by her husband. But how can Oprah ignore
the fact that these pictures appear in all societies, and that crimes
against women, and similar crimes, exist without any connection to
nationality or religion?"(3)
Not All Saudi Women Are Rania, and Not All Saudi Men Are Her Husband
Another Al-Riyadh columnist, Hayat Al-'Abd Al-'Aziz, claimed that Al-Baz's
appearance on Oprah damaged Saudi Arabia's image. She wrote: "We are all
quite familiar with the injustice suffered by the TV hostess Rania, and we
are not asking her to keep quiet. Yet it is strange that she tells her story
on television stations that compete amongst themselves in blaming Saudi
Arabia for all evils and making generalizations based on specific cases - as
if all our women were Rania and all our men were her husband. Given that the
program was hostile to anything having to do with Muslims, [Al-Baz's]
participation did not contribute anything to [Saudi] society in any way,
shape, or form.
"Our media has already done enough of a service with the [Al-Baz] case. We
all expressed solidarity with her, and governmental institutions helped, her
so why distort the image of Saudi women and portray them as oppressed?
"I pose a thousand questions to Rania. Why didn't she use her appearance on
the program to express [Saudi] society's position on the issue...
[Likewise], why didn't the program talk about a Saudi woman who is a doctor,
a researcher, a preacher, or an author those who are the [true] ambassadors
of their country and their religion...
"Oprah is like a sieve that tells the needle that it has a hole in it. It
would have been better if she had spent the time and money for this segment
on doing a service to her own society, and on revealing the [true] situation
in that society. [This is] because we know that every minute in America
another woman is raped and another child sold into prostitution...
"I call on the Saudi and Arab media to stand up to this crazy attack, and to
show that the [Saudi] woman's situation is better than theirs [i.e.,
Who Would Dare Present a Rape Victim As a Symbol of the U.S.?
In her article in the Saudi English-language daily Arab News titled '"This
Is Not a Saudi Soap Oprah," Lubna Hussein wrote (English in original): "It
was this newspaper that dared to pursue the case of Rania Al-Baz last
summer, and brought it to public attention. Such reportage is utterly
important and absolutely necessary for a society such as ours that is
experiencing a period of transformation.
"I am a firm believer in speaking the truth, no matter how hard it may be to
swallow or come to terms with. We have come an awfully long way in a
relatively short period of time. Subjects that were considered taboo and
issues that smacked of social stigma are being addressed openly and
publicly. This shows our determination and willingness to confront our
shortcomings and failings.
"Yes, we have domestic abuse. Yes, there are unsavory elements that live in
our society too. Yes, there are women and children who have been subjected
to mental and physical torture.
"But no, this does not define us as a society. What concerns me is the
manner in which the outside world looks upon the evolutionary process that
we are experiencing. It is as if we are damned if we do and damned if we
"Throughout the years when crime and corruption were totally absent from the
headlines, we were considered as being unrealistic and hiding under false
pretenses. Now that we finally have the courage to become more realistic and
deal with the brute realities that we have concealed for so long, we are
being classified by such revelations.
"If this be the case, then why was not the corpse of someone who had been
burned to death by her in-laws as a failure to pay her dowry chosen to
embody the quintessential Indian woman? Statistically, there must be more of
these wretched souls inhabiting the shores of the Subcontinent than glamour
pusses who have won international beauty pageants.
"If you look at the figures, then rape victims are far more common than
Hollywood movie stars and yet who would dare to nominate one of these ladies
as being the icon symbolic of the United States? Or would a snapshot of a
high school student from a Columbine yearbook gunned down in cold blood by a
fellow pupil be more cognizant of The American Dream?
"What worries me is just how irresponsible, discriminatory and ill-informed
a seasoned and influential broadcaster can be and get away with it. This is
blatant hypocrisy of the highest order, that can only serve to create
misunderstanding and distrust between people of different cultures and
religions. In a world where we are sitting on a Balkan powder keg, how can
such rabid sensationalism and distorted journalism be justified?
"However, in spite of all this, as a society we do have very real flaws that
don't need further rationalization but instant correction. Our talented
women need to be supported in their respected fields. In light of the fact
that 55 percent of all Saudi graduates are women, the government and the
private sector need to rethink their recruitment strategies to get the best
out of this potential goldmine of employees.
"Women need to be given their rights according to those clearly stated in
Islamic law. Not those subject to interpretation and manipulation through
the designs of male domination and control. Women are the driving force of
any society (no pun intended!), and if we are determined to move forward
then it is incumbent upon us to accept their invaluable contribution to
progress and reform.
"I don't believe that it is the image of Rania Al-Baz, the battered
announcer, or Capt. Hanadi Hindy, the first Saudi female pilot, that defines
the Saudi woman but rather the growing contingent of educated, emancipated,
and sophisticated women like those who supported the petition against such
"According to your stereotypical estimation, Ms. Winfrey, we may not have a
face, but we do have a voice!"(5)
The Saudi Ministry of Information Should Make Oprah Show a Saudi-Made
Documentary on Saudi Women
In her article in Al-Riyadh, Saudi author Hayam Al-Muflih wrote: "[Oprah's]
show dealt with several countries, such as Belgium, Iceland, and Spain, and
with the locales, faiths, and cuisine characteristic of these countries.
There were segments and reports from the show's reporters on these
countries... When Saudi Arabia's turn came, in the context of this issue, I
expected that a similar report would be done on the [Saudi] Kingdom, on its
special locales and its cuisine. But to my great surprise, they discussed
Saudi women as victims of domestic violence.
"Why was this report dragged into the show? Is that what makes Saudi Arabia
and Saudi women unique? There was no balance between [this report] and the
[other] reports in this show, despite the fact that they were all on the
"We should take great care with respect to the assignments of foreign
reporters in our country, and we should rapidly respond to the distortions
and the calumnies that they circulate [about us] in their various media.
"At present, after what happened on that show, I think that the [Saudi]
Ministry of Information itself should oversee the production of a local
documentary, to be given free of charge to the Oprah Winfrey Show, and
should require the show to broadcast it. [The documentary] will talk about
women in our country and about their impressive achievements in research and
in the workplace, at both the local and the international level, so that
Oprah and her viewers will know that although it is forbidden for Saudi
women to drive, they have left a special imprint on the map of women around
Instead of Going on the Defensive and Making Accusations, We Should Enter
into a Dialogue with the West So as to Get to the Truth
In her article "Thanks to Oprah," Dr. Haya 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Muni' pointed
out the show's contribution in bringing Saudi women to talk about the issue:
"We should thank her [i.e., Oprah], not because she presented things
accurately, or said things that we didn't know, or helped [us] see the
truth, but because what she showed in accordance with what she read and saw
proves that she tried to grasp Saudi society in the context of its worldview
and its culture...
"Of course, her reading of the social reality [in Saudi Arabia] included
many false accusations. But we should thank her for having led Saudi women
to rise up in protest against this show...The participation of women in the
protestations against this show proves that it struck a sensitive chord
among our women.
"I won't discuss the show, since I didn't see it, but I want to ask why even
now we haven't been able to free ourselves of [this] Saudi sensitivity -
despite the fact that our society has undergone many changes that are likely
to make us see things in a more rational manner...
"We need to get over our sensitivity and to enter into [a dialogue] on the
social reality [in Saudi Arabia], especially in all things concerning women.
It wouldn't do us any harm to discuss the fact that Saudi women don't drive
cars, that they don't enter politics, and that there are no 'sports clubs
"However, it would do us a lot of harm to think that everyone is against us
and that what others say comes from malign motives. We need to hear the
other, first of all, and afterwards to reply. We definitely need to do away
with our many sensitivities, which have no place in the context of our
cultural struggle with others, and especially with the West, which will
continue to discuss our internal affairs, and will even continue to discuss
them from its own point of view.
"If we aren't capable of becoming involved in the issue with full awareness
and with a proactive approach, and of becoming a party in a dialogue and
speaking confidently as revealers of truth, and with self-confidence, and
not as defenders of the [current] reality, then we will remain as we are,
and will not progress to [the stage of] dialogue with the other...
"We must understand that in the West, there are private individuals who are
interested in the truth and who have no grudges or prejudices against us,
and that there is another group, with hostile positions, that wants to harm
us. Also, we must not confuse the political position of Western governments
with what the media shows there. We must now rid ourselves of the Saudi
sensitivity, so that we can know the true opinions of others, and can
differentiate between an opinion that strives for truth and another opinion
that seeks to harm us."(7)
Columnist Al-Ghalib: Rania and I Were Misled by Show's Producers
Columnist Essam Al-Ghalib, who had facilitated Rania Al-Baz's appearance on
the show, published an article in the Saudi English-language daily Arab News
titled "Oprah, Please Don't Call Me Again." In it, he claimed that the
show's production team had misled him and Rania Al-Baz.
Al-Ghalib wrote that the show's production team had told them that the
interview with Al-Baz would be broadcast as part of a program dealing with
violence against women around the world - but as it turned out, it was shown
as part of a general program on women across the globe, in order to show
Saudi society in a negative light.
Al-Ghalib stated that the show had included only three minutes of a
64-minute interview with Al-Baz, in which she had described the positive
aspects of Saudi Arabia:
"When the Oprah Winfrey Show called me 10 months ago for help in producing a
segment about Rania Al-Baz, I knew that Rania would be hesitant. She had
stopped giving interviews after being criticized in the local press for
going public with the near-fatal beating she suffered at the hands of her
husband, Muhammad Bakr Yunis Al-Falatta.
"I told Rania: 'Oprah is the most respected name in American television. She
is known the world over for her open, fair and balanced view on different
subjects. Judging from what I have seen on her show, I feel confident that
if you can trust anyone in American television, it is Oprah.'
"Convincing [Rania] to tell her story to the world was not easy, as she
feared that the story would be used to cast Saudi Arabia in a negative
light. When I discussed Rania's concerns with Oprah's producer in charge of
the segment, [the producer] assured me in no uncertain terms that the
segment was about Rania and other battered women around the world, not about
Saudi Arabia. The producer assured me that Rania's story was being used as
part of a show about battered women around the world and the aim was to
encourage them to come forward and seek help.
"I told Rania, 'You are being given the opportunity to address the whole
world. You can talk about what happened to you and how so many rallied
around you and stood behind you. You can talk directly to other women all
over the world who have been battered and tell them they don't have to take
"I added, 'Besides, as you have become aware, there is a perception in the
West that this is normal behavior in Saudi Arabia. Your story paints a
"At the time, Muhammad Al-Falatta was in jail awaiting sentencing and
certain flogging; divorce proceedings were already under way and Rania had
custody of her children.
"After Rania finally agreed, and when it was time to film the interview, she
took great pains to communicate very clearly at every opportunity that
wife-beating was certainly not socially acceptable in Saudi Arabia and
definitely did not represent the country or our religion. Time after time,
over and over, she made the point of talking about the good in our country.
"After the tapes were sent to Chicago, I received a call from the Chicago
producer informing me that the tapes had arrived and that she was very
pleased with the results. She said, 'Unfortunately we couldn't get them
edited in time for the studio taping with Oprah and the audience, so we
won't be using Rania's piece for now.
"In February, I received a message from the same producer, saying that
Rania's piece would be used after all in a follow-up to the first segment
that was originally supposed to feature her. 'We will be taping in the
studio around the end of March,' the producer said.
"Last week, someone mentioned that they had seen Rania Al-Baz on Oprah.
After immediately checking local listings for the rerun, I called some of my
cousins and friends to tell them to watch. After watching the first 25
minutes about happy women in different countries, I was convinced that I had
misread the television schedule, and that the episode we were watching was
not the one featuring Rania.
"This episode began with Aishwarya Rai, and then moved on to Iceland, [with]
its glaciers and hot springs. Icelandic talk show host Svanhilder Valsdottir
discussed social customs, while offering Oprah Icelandic delicacies such as
rotten shark meat and sour lamb testicles. When Oprah began talking about
Belgium's justly-famous delicious fried potatoes and chocolates with another
woman, I called my mother and told her that I was sure that this was not
'my' Oprah episode.
"I told her, 'This isn't the type of show Oprah's producer told me about.
Besides, Oprah is taking us around the world to different countries showing
us how satisfied women in those countries are. It would be totally
unbalanced and unfair to shift to Saudi Arabia to focus on Rania. It would
be as if what happened to her is what our women most enjoy about Saudi
Arabia. Her story is not a happy one, and wouldn't flow with the others on
"I was wrong. Rania, swollen, bloodied and bruised, flashed across the
screen moments later, as Oprah explained what had happened to her and
followed it with the usual unfair and uninformed diatribe that American
audiences love to hear about how miserable Saudi women are and how free and
happy American women are.
"The entire original interview with Rania (a copy of which I still have here
in Jeddah) lasted 64 minutes. Oprah used three of those 64. In the 61
minutes that were not shown, Rania talked about how wonderful our religion
and our country are, and she discusses women's rights and their lives in
Saudi Arabia in a fair and realistic manner.
"Rania and I were used by the Oprah Winfrey Show to paint Saudi Arabia in an
unfair and negative light.
"When I called the producer I had dealt with in Chicago for an explanation,
the warm greetings and enthusiasm to speak with me that had existed prior to
the taping had been replaced by a hurried and impatient attitude that
clearly meant, 'I don't have time for you anymore now that I have gotten
what I wanted from you.' I was referred to the media relations department at
Harpo Studios and from them, I received the following official statement:
"'Rania Al-Baz's story was always intended for inclusion in a show that
examined the different lives of women from various countries. We feel her
story was presented accurately and we hope that her courage in sharing it
with an international audience will help millions of other women around the
In another article, "An Open Letter to Oprah," posted on Al-Sharq Al-Awsat's
English-language website, Al-Ghalib continued to express his dissatisfaction
with the production team and with the statement he received from the media
relations department: "Dear Ms. Winfrey... I was told you weren't available
to actually reply yourself, which leaves me wondering if you personally are
aware of the injustice that's been committed... It is fair to say that she
[Rania] has been victimized yet again, and the catalyst was your show...
"I still have a copy of the entire interview that I sent you, here in Saudi
[Arabia]. May I have your permission to release it to an Arab television
network that can perhaps help undo some of the damage you did to Rania's
reputation? Or would you yourself like to do something realistic, fair, and
unbiased [that is] worthy of your name?
"Something has to be done if not for Saudi Arabia, if not for your Arab
fans, if not for your very reputation, then at least for Rania, who has
suffered enough really."(9)
(2) In reaction to the show, an English-language petition titled "Thanks
Oprah, but I'm PROUD to be Saudi!" drawn up by women students at King Saud
University, was circulated on the Internet. The petition protests against
what it called the show's uniformly negative portrayal of the situation of
Saudi women, and its disregard of positive aspects of Saudi society. See
(3) Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 27, 2005.
(4) Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), July 2, 2005.
(5) Arab News (Saudi Arabia), July 1, 2005.
(6) Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), July 1, 2005.
(7) Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), July 2, 2005.
(8) Arab News News (Saudi Arabia), July 7, 2005.
(9) http://aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=5&id=765 July 11, 2005 .
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