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July 20, 2005 Special Dispatch No. 937

Saudi Women Angered by Oprah Winfrey Show: ‘We Were Portrayed as a Backward Society That Is Violent Towards Women’

July 20, 2005
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 937

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 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 society. [2]

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 context.

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 souk s 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., American women's]…" [4]

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 don't.

"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 convenient typecasting.

"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 same topic…

"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 the world." [6]

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 [for women].

"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 it.

"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 different picture.'

"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.'s

"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 this program.'

"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 world.'…" [8]

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]

 

[1] http://www2.oprah.com/tows/slide/200504/20050425/slide_20050425_109.jhtml.

[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 http://www.petitiononline.com/4oprah/petition.html.

[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 (Saudi Arabia), July 7, 2005.

[9] http://aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=5&id=765 July 11, 2005.

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