Taking notice of the growing trend of reported abuse against girls and women, two prominent Saudi social activists took it upon themselves to introduce a chapter of a global campaign by men against violence towards women. Abdullah Al Alami and Samar Fatany started the local chapter of the global White Ribbon campaign, the intent of which was to raise awareness of the issue of abuse and the means to eradicate it.
The campaign originally began in Canada as a reaction to an indiscriminate act of violence and massacre committed by a 25-year-old Canadian, Marc Lepine, in 1989. He had been upset that the École Polytechnique had twice rejected his application for admission, and blamed his misfortunes on the presence of women on the campus.
According to reports, he was resentful about women working in non-traditional jobs, ‘and after separating men and women in a classroom, he shot the women, claiming that he was fighting the evils of feminism. He then moved around the campus targeting women as he went, before killing himself. A total of 14 women were killed, and 10 injured. He left a suicide note blaming feminists for ruining his life.’
It was actually a full two years later when Canadian activists started a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women, defining it as the White Ribbon campaign. Their mission statement says it all:
‘White Ribbon is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity. Starting in 1991, we asked men to wear white ribbons as a pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. Since then the White Ribbon has spread to over 60 countries. …
Through education, awareness-raising, outreach, technical assistance, capacity building, partnerships and creative campaigns, White Ribbon is helping create tools, strategies and models that challenge negative, outdated concepts of manhood and inspire men to understand and embrace the incredible potential they have to be a part of positive change.’
As the Saudi movement, which started in April, began to gather steam, not all were appreciative of such activities. Blogger Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi mother of three, was quick to point out that opposition to the campaign has taken shape in the form of clerics who view such movements as evil tools of the West.
She explains, “The most influential shaikh to lash out against the White Ribbon campaign is Shaikh Nasser Al Omar. In a video-taped sermon released on cable TV and social media, he instructs all Muslims to reject Abdullah Al Alami and Samar Fatany’s campaign. He refers to them as advocates of immorality. He says that the White Ribbon campaign compromises the very foundation of the pact between the Saudi royal family and Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahab’s followers. He also mentions national security three times in the 24-minute long video. He objects to the ‘advocates of immorality’ campaign’s mission statement mentioning the ending of child marriages.
“Another issue he takes up with the mission statement is that it calls for laws against harassment at work. He says that that is a call for not segregating the genders, since women will feel safe to work in a non-segregated environment if there are laws to protect them. Shaikh Al Omar actually says ‘they want to extract women from their subordination’ and ‘they want women to be presidents’ as if it were satanic to want that.”
“And then he goes on about how CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) is evil and a westernising plot to demoralise Muslim societies. The shaikh denies that violence against women even exists in Saudi except for a few exceptions. He ends the sermon with a call to action particularly to Muslim women to reject the White Ribbon campaign on social media. But he does note that these women have to reject it by only written means because their voices should not be heard in public.”
Eman argues: “You would think that religious clerics would welcome an anti-violence campaign. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. The White Ribbon campaign is about men and boys going public with a declaration of rejecting violence against women. Saudi ultra-conservatives do go public about women’s issues but it’s more about confining women than protecting them.”
There is a growing realisation that many of religious conservatives who take to the airwaves to promote their polarising views are gradually becoming inconsequential. Women are becoming a force to be reckoned with. The shift in Saudi society has many roots, with education being the most dominant force. Granted hard-line clerics do command a lot of followers who view them as the vanguards of Islamic morality. Sometimes their followers take to enforcing their views physically.
Following the airing of such opposition, one of the key figures behind the campaign, Abdullah Al Alami, quipped: “Death threats don’t bother me as much as the increased level of incidents of women abuse in Saudi. We need to stop this in any way legally possible.” In the meantime, the campaign will march on.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena