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


The fall of the last bastion of free speech in Venezuela

For years, Venezuela's government has dodged accusations that it does not protect freedom of speech. Critics usually point to the frequent use of public airwaves to broadcast government propaganda, as well as the many TV and radio stations the government has shut down for playing critical content. The government usually responds by citing the continued operation of Globovisión, a sharply critical all-news station (or rather, the only critical news station). Chavistas claim that its survival throughout the Chávez era refutes any allegations of censorship.

But the government will have to find another weak alibi. As of the last few days, Globovisión's critical presentation of the news feels like a thing of the past.

Last March, Globovisión's owners announced that the station had been sold to a group of Venezuelan businessmen linked to the insurance industry. The decision made sense both economically and politically. Globovisión has been under siege for years by being routinely fined for covering news that regulators felt would "stir public anxiety." Because of their work, Globovisión's owners and journalists are also under constant threats of being arrested.

The standoff between the government and Globovisión goes back to 2001. Back then, most of the Venezuelan media took a harshly critical stance toward President Hugo Chávez's early efforts to establish what he called a "socialist republic." After losing several battles, stations such as Venevisión and Televen backed down and began self-censoring. Radio Caracas Television was shut down after the government refused to renew its license. The small-ish Globovisión, Venezuela's main private all-news channel, remained unapologetically critical and correspondingly experienced significant growth in its ratings. While it presented itself as a news network, its programming was loaded with opinion shows that mostly promoted the opposition's point of view.

The existence of critical news stations, however, does not exactly give credence to the government's claims that all of the media are against it. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have both cited Globovisión as the only remaining critical TV station in the country, pointing out that more than 50 percent of news media outlets are favorable to the government. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch concluded that "[w]hile sharp criticism of the government is still common in the print media, on the private TV station Globovisión, and in some other outlets, fear of government reprisals has made self-censorship a serious problem."

But judging by the actions of Globovisión's new owners, the station is now preparing to give up its role as the last line of defense for free speech. Several well-known journalists have either resigned or lost their jobs (such as Kico Bautista shown above) because of differences with the new owners. Following a decision to ban live video of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state took to Twitter to denounce apparent links between the station's new owners and members of the ruling clique. Massive numbers of Twitter followers began "un-following" the station. This prompted a furious communiqué from the owners in which they vowed to prevent the station from acting "like a political party," a talking point typically used by high-ranking chavistas when criticizing the station.

These moves come at a time when the Maduro administration is dominating the airwaves with mandatory broadcasts even as his popularity is tanking. Venezuelans are suffering through severe shortages of everything from corn flour to toilet paper, and this seems to be hurting the government's image.

Globovisión's demise is one of several worrying trends in Venezuela's public sphere. After criticizing chavista strongman Diosdado Cabello for corruption, the state TV channel VTV decided to bench their own chavista talking head, Mario Silva, and cancel his long-running show, La Hojilla ("The Razorblade"). Now, Maduro has been talking about going after cable TV. Among his targets is CNN, which, he says, is conspiring against his government by engaging in "psychological warfare" and by plotting a coup.

A few years ago, the Chávez administration began working toward what they call "communication hegemony." With these latest moves, it seems as if the goal is within reach. But if the government succeeds, it will soon find itself facing a new problem. When all the critics are gone, officials will no longer have anyone to blame for "media conspiracies" and other such nonsense.

At any rate, Venezuelans really don't need their TV news to tell them there is no toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. It's this grim reality that's the real enemy of the government -- and that's one case where censorship isn't going to help.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

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