The surprising new fight against domestic violence in Saudi Arabia

The surprising new fight against domestic violence in Saudi Arabia

Hundreds of thousands of readers saw this image in their newspaper: A woman in a niqab with a bruised and bloodied left eye that you might miss at first glance — but which you can’t un-see once you’ve noticed it. It is a visually compelling advertisement, definitely a strong beginning for a campaign by the King Khaled Foundation to "end abuse in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." The ad featured an anti-violence slogan, followed by a list of numbers to report cases of domestic abuses. In an ultra-conservative environment that has routinely avoided dealing with such issues, the campaign is a welcome breath of fresh air.

The campaign’s website [Ar, En] jumps head-first into the topic, admitting that Saudi society has generally denied the phenomenon of domestic violence and asserting that "no one sees the full extent of the phenomenon, its actual breadth, its underlying reasons, and its effects." It also offers a 12-page study [Ar.] and call for action, listing steps necessary to create local institutions to support protection for vulnerable women and children, increase awareness in society, and create shelters for victims when necessary.

Soon after the campaign’s first public newspaper advertisement came the first TV spot on domestic abuse, featuring a man violently beating two crash test dummies — which then morph into a woman and child, cowering in the corner. The voiceover then quotes the prophet Mohammed urging people to be gentle in their dealings with people. It ends with a call for reporting cases of domestic abuses. You don’t need to understand Arabic to appreciate the message — or the possible shock value of the ad. Watch it.

The launch of this initiative is all the more striking considering the start of another campaign that preceded it by just a few days. This is the "White Ribbon campaign," the Saudi version of the international campaign of the same name, which aims to involve men more actively in efforts to stop violence against women. The Saudi White Ribbon owes a great deal to Saudi female journalist Samar Fatany, who recently issued a dramatic call for Arab men to take a stronger stance against gender-based violence. Fatany makes a point of praising what she calls King Abdullah’s "leading role in supporting women." She writes that the king has "defied extremists who discriminate against women and those who are insensitive to the violence committed against them." She concludes her article with a plea for men to heed the monarch’s example. Most reactions to Fatany’s article were positive, and it would seem that Saudi Arabia could be on its way to joining the world in celebrating the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25.

One thing worth noting about the King Khaled Foundation ad is the subtle difference between the English version of the campaign picture (picked by ad agency Memac Ogilvy) and the one printed in Arabic by the King Khaled Foundation.

The English version bears the caption "some things can’t be covered." The slogan subtly suggests that the problem isn’t only the violence but also the act of covering it — though the latter is actually a sign of modesty for conservative Muslims. If this is an attempt to link abuse with religion, that’s probably going to be a no-no for the ad’s intended audience.

In the ad’s final version in Arabic, copywriters have replaced the slogan with a common idiom that can be translated literally as "what is concealed is greater" — the rough equivalent of "there’s more to this than meets the eye." The Arabic slogan avoids the negative religious connotation and refocuses attention on the concealment of the injury.

Most of the reactions to the campaign within Saudi Arabia have been positive, if one is to judge by opinions published in the mainstream press.

Expectedly, some extreme conservative voices have expressed very negative opinions of both campaigns. They deride the White Ribbon campaign as a western tool for undermining Saudi morals and "allowing sexual promiscuity" [Ar]. The most high-profile criticism of this kind comes from Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, the head of the League of Muslim Scholars, who assails the White Ribbon campaign as a "westernizing plot" (again) that attempts to "corrupt" women. He ends his comment,with a notable lack of irony, by calling on Muslim women "to declare their rejection of these projects."

By contrast, the King Khaled Foundation campaign seems to have escaped such bitter attacks, presumably thanks to its royal affiliation. (Not only is it named after the late King, but its entire board consists of members of the royal family.)

But will this initiative actually change anything in Saudi society? This is a country where ultra-conservatives have shown over and over again that they are willing to go to great lengths to enforce a misogynistic code of conduct. Just this week, the Saudi writer Abdullah Mohamed al-Dawood, irate at the increased participation of women in the workplace, urged his Twitter followers to physically molest women cashiers in stores across the Kingdom. The rising number of female workers is part of a government plan to increase Saudi participation in the workforce, following legislation to "Saudi-ize" the economy by compelling companies to meet certain quotas of Saudi employees.

So there’s still a long way to go. Nonetheless, these recent initiatives are a welcome sign that Saudi Arabia may be finally heading in the right direction when it comes to women’s rights. 

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here