Is Women’s Empowerment as Simple as Drawing a Line? Thoughts on the Khede Kasra Campaign

Back in early 2008, the Hariri Foundation’s Women Empowerment Program wanted to start a national campaign addressing Lebanese society—all its classes, religions, and cultural backgrounds—with one goal: that the idea of “women’s rights” is not a prestigious cliché, but a value and a part in our daily life. So they hired Leo Burnett to do that in a low-cost way that stays away from religious issues.

In his interview with Nathalie Bontems, Bukhara Mouzannar, the executive creative director at Leo Burnett, stated: “We had to go for minimalism, something that everybody, including the less educated segment of the population, which is our core target, would understand.”

And this was it:

Using basic Arabic language rules that distinguish whether one is addressing a male or a female, the campaign uses an accent (called “kasra”, the Arabic word for the grammatical symbol added to a word to make it sound feminine) to highlight the differences in language: when one reads a male-formed word, he or she will assume it can be meant for both but it will sound masculine. Readers are asked to place kasras underneath words that are normally read as male to include themselves.

In the campaign’s big street billboards, three phrases are used: “Your responsibility”, “Your right” and “Your willpower”. Without a kasra, everyone asked to read them did so in the male form.

Urging women to take part in every aspect of life, the campaign asked each woman to know that she is one of those addressed by any word in the default form as a symbol of each and everything happening around her. By placing the kasra in words, each woman is taking her place in the audience of this word, and in turn take her place in the world.

In a very symbolic move, all Lebanese people were asked to actually draw the kasra under the words to really move the people into actually doing something about it. When I draw the sign that makes that word feminine, I will always remember the feminine share in each and every word afterwards. In another words, I will always remember that I am one of those people meant by each and every word because I exist!

As mentioned in the video, interaction with the campaign was massive, including both men and women and hitting different parts of the society. Several different TV presenters in Lebanon wore the Kasra symbol as a symbol of their support and participation in the campaign.

While so many articles and bloggers applauded the initiative, others questioned the approach. Tracey McCormick, in her article Rock the Kasra“, asked a question for those who believe language can be a way of changing ideologies:

How could these intellectuals, these doctors of belaboring, put so much emphasis on a single word? Did they really think they could effect change with one linguistic meme?

At one point you really need to ask yourself, “Can changing the language change a person’s perception?”

But at the end of her article, she considered the “putting the kasra” action a step toward slimming the gap between the words and the ideas by making every person actually change the language by his or her own hands.

The campaign started to get more attention from Arabic, English, and French presses in Lebanon. And then awards came pouring in, including the Mena Cristal Awards, Cannes’ Gold Lion, and The Golden Drum Awards.

But where are everyday Lebanese people in all this? The campaign obviously grabbed lots of international and official attention, but what about the normal Lebanese citizen? There are so many articles and interviews about the awards, but none speaking to Lebanese themselves. Many Leo Burnett staff members were interviewed, but the Hariri Foundation is nowhere to be found. Aside from Lebanese newspaper articles, there seems to be very little reaction from Lebanese society.

And as much as this campaign has succeeded in gaining international attention and awards, the questions about its method are still left unanswered: can language actually change how people think? Can linguistic differences affect how someone feels about herself, her life, and her role in it?

This is what Khede Kasra has set out to do. Only time will tell whether the campaign has succeeded at doing more than winning awards.

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