Gender Discrimination in Saudi Advertising
It seems there are no women in Saudi Arabia, and when such creatures are spotted, they are seen as mothers or worshippers who do not eat or use mobile phones.
By Iqbal Tamimi
Trying to balance the act of projecting a civilised modern state and an ultra-conservative patriarchal society in the media at the same time is not an easy task.
Such example can be easily spotted within the segregated Saudi media, its public relations organisations and media advertising, where there are attempts to please two parties at the same time; the ultra conservatives and the international business partners in the rest of the world.
Public relation companies in the Gulf region can be considered as the most active and most supported by the local governments because of their vital role in promoting the image of the state as an excellent niche for investments in different sectors, especially in UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where the advertising sector is a huge magnet that sucks money and lures investors, but unfortunately Saudi Arabia’s practices of open discrimination against women, topples the efforts of promoting an image of a modern civil society.
Double standards and unethical media practices are widely practised within Saudi advertising content. There are usually two versions promoting the same product; one in Arabic addressing the local audiences inside Saudi Arabia and another reflecting a modern image aiming at the Pan Arab and expatriate communities, published and broadcast by Saudi media organisations based outside Saudi Arabia such as Dubai, London and Beirut.
In a promotional video released about Saudi Arabia, women appeared in three instances only. Women appeared in their capacity as mothers taking care of their families or worshipping. One woman was standing at her house door seeing her husband off to his work and her children to school, the second woman appeared while combing her daughter’s hair, while the third shot was of two women walking towards a mosque.
The rest of the promotional video is all about men. Men appeared in active roles such as worshipping, operating different forms of transport, playing music, enjoying cultural events, working in architecture, participating in sport, cooking, dancing, selling, creating art, playing cards, enjoying tourism, fishing, leading economical projects, working in science labs, working at the stock market, at oil fields, specialists in export, import and specialists in manufacturing.
Boys appeared in the video enjoying a happy childhood and enjoyable living style, while a little girl appeared once, fully dressed from head to toe, as grown up women do, while reading Quran at home.
Since women are invisible, and only men go to work, and only men drive cars and only men seem to have ‘active roles’. Men are targeted by Saudi adverts when it comes to eating out or even when campaigning to keep the streets clean.
It is a ridiculous practice to replace all women by little girls in advertising, as is the case in Saudi adverts. I am not talking here about stereotyping, rather about common sense and safety issues.
In this advert, this little girl talks about how much time it used to take her at school to cook crème caramel and how easy and time saving it has been for her since she discovered she can buy a ready-made crème caramel brand available in the local markets.
The people working in the advertising sector are men, who possibly know very little about cooking crème caramel at home and the fact that it involves dangerous steps that might burn a 7 year old child like the one who appeared in the advert, such as giving the pan that contains the hot melted sugar a good shake, taking the pan off the heat and adding tablespoons of water, where the content splutters and can cause severe burns, pouring two thirds of the caramel into the soufflé dish, tipping it round the base and sides to coat, pouring the hot milk, placing the soufflé dish in a roasting tin and pouring in hot water to come two thirds of the way up the dish and placing the whole thing in a pre-heated oven.
To evade involving a woman in the advert by claiming that a 7 years old girl went repeatedly through such hazardous steps while cooking, is clearly an extra-large lie and mounts to false advertising.
Respected western brands fell in this ethical trap of double standards while advertising. For example woman photographed in the standard version of the IKEA furnishing catalogue, were removed from the pages of the Saudi version.
I checked my email box today. There were a number of PR press releases and invitations circulated as usual to journalists and media professionals to participate in events held in the GCC. One of today’s emails was an invitation posted by ‘Eye of Riyadh’, a Saudi advertising company, to attend the ‘Building Competitive Partnerships Forum’, GCF 2014 that will be held in the city of Riyadh 18-20 of January.
The invitation came into two parts. The left side printed in English while the right side in Arabic. One expects an invitation in two languages to have the same content on each side. But this is not the case in Saudi PR. In this example, the English version is totally different from the Arabic one. The Arabic version addresses ‘Business Men’ only while the English version has a general invitation tone to both genders.
One do not exclude the possibility that such different versions might be due to bad translation, but the fact is the majority of promotional campaigns and advertising in Saudi Arabia excludes women, even when they are the targeted audience. According to most Saudi Salafi scholars, a woman’s awrah (The intimate parts of a woman’s body) in front of unrelated men is her entire body including her face and hands. Hence this might explain the absence of women from Saudi advertising.
Advertising is strictly controlled by censorship officials to remove content that is offensive or reflect the government version of Islamic morality. In 1994, all women magazines were banned by the Ministry of Information due to the religious establishment pressures. After the ban, nineteen of twenty-four magazines closed down since their main revenue was from advertisement earnings.
Lately, the Saudi authorities needed women in adverts to combat domestic abuse and physical violence.
The advert features a woman wearing a traditional black cloak over her head with just her eyes visible through the slits in her veil – one eye blackened and bloodshot, though I do not see the slogan that simply reads: “Some things can’t be covered.” effective enough, because the eyes are the only thing that is not covered, and most women are covered from head to toe, hiding marks of physical torture.
There are contradictions in handling physical abuse. The advert encourages Saudi women to report domestic abuse, while women are battered by their own male guardians who have the legal right to control women by banning them from leaving home to report an incident or make a phone call. There are many incidents reported about women who were punished by the legal system or their complaints were not dealt with because they arrived at court or at police station without being accompanied by a male guardian.
Saudi journalist Kholoud Alfahad started an online campaign demanding 27 articles of rights for women after a police officer refused to investigate a harassment complaint she wanted to file against a man because she came to the police station unaccompanied by her male guardian. When she turned to the religious authorities requesting their support, they refused to help her as well, claiming she was not properly veiled.
Sawsan Saleem, a Saudi woman of Sudanese origin, was sentenced last January 2013 by a Saudi judge to 300 lashes and 18 months prison because she arrived at court to file a harassment complaint without being accompanied by a male guardian. Her male guardian is her husband who was in prison and she had no male relatives in Saudi Arabia to accompany her.
Saudi women are not treated as grown-ups regardless of their age. They are treated like their own children. In November 2012 the media revealed that Saudi women are being electronically monitored by the authorities, which track them and inform their husbands of their whereabouts.
Manal al-Sherif, who highlighted the driving issue last year by urging women to defy the ban, was one of those women. She relayed this information on Twitter. She and her husband were travelling together when he received a text message on his mobile phone from the immigration authorities, telling him that his wife had left Riyadh airport.
A deep look into advertising practices can lead to a deeper understanding of any society, including those who objectify women, and those who disown almost 50% of their population by ignoring women’s presence.