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.

  • celeritas

    I can see the point in wanting to shift the linguistic presumption of Arabic from male forms to both male and female forms but the question is the words we are doing this to. My question is what do these sentences address, what is “Your responsibility”, “Your right” and “Your willpower”?

    A female may perceive her rights in a patriachal society to be less than men, her responsibilities focused on the home rather than outside and her ability to excercise her willpower limited to simple choices that do not influence her family, religion or country.

    I still don’t understand what the actual aim of the campaign is, not being an Arabic speaker I may have missed something significant in the campaign which indicates this but from the video it seems a pretty limited advertising stunt. It is elegant and got a lot of coverage but how was its influence measured?

    I’m not sure that this sort of advertising would really reduce violence against women or help women feel more empowered to express themselves. Afterall it was about making women feel that they too are addressed by signs and considering most of them are either providing information or advertising will it really make women more equal, surely they are still the passive person being addressed by the sign.

    Do Lebanese people really feel that the basic Arabic language rule of using masculine pronouns to address both genders and mixed groups is a problem?

  • Krista

    This was really interesting – thanks Eman for writing about it! As a feminist and a big language nerd, I’m totally fascinated by the ways that our language affects our perceptions about gender.

    To me, I think the most important part of this campaign is the potential it has to make people reflect on their own assumptions, and particularly the way that it exposes (and disrupts) the idea of maleness being the default or neutral assumption, with women always being the other, or the second thought. That the absence of a kasrah isn’t a neutral absence, but rather an implicit presence of a fathah.

    On its own, I’m not sure how wide an impact this will have in making major changes to Lebanese society, but I think it’s a really interesting (and useful) way to get people to think twice about their own readings and to question the assumed neutrality of the words that people use.

  • Mary Alice

    It’s funny, my mom told me a quote yesterday “a man is born as many men, and dies as only one.” However, I had to wonder why, seeing as we were both female, why some of the saying I hear from women never even bother to change the language. I mean my mom is a teacher, there are many teacher-y women in my life that like to tell quotes like this, and yet they are often “mankind” “a man”….It does kinda give the underlying impression that this wisdom is more important for the men than for the women, IMO.

    I think language represents a culture, and as culture changes, language has to change with it.

  • eyes serene

    Assalamu alaikom,
    I have no idea what the impact this campaign will have in the end, so I can’t give an opinion on that aspect specifically. However, I’d like to say this: I grew up in the era of “he” and “man” as the default English. When I first learned to read, I did feel as though statements intended to be general but using the male terms (like “he” and “man/mankind”) did not apply to my gender! And when I got a little bit older, it bothered me greatly! And things changed, we started to see “s/he” “he or she”, “fire fighter” instead of “fireman”, etc. I think inclusiveness is always a step in the right direction. Language is a tool and it has a profound influence in shaping our thoughts and feelings.

  • Eman Hashim

    Hello ladies,
    First of all Thanks for the comments and the support.

    I have to say I do believe language does affect culture. But it has to be in a language-oriented mentalities. In a group of people who actually care about what they say and what it means.
    But does it really help when it is represented in a place where where problems are much deeper and deeper.

    I know language does emphasize who someone feels about himself. But it cannot give someone a “self” to start with.
    Yes language helps you define your identity, but unless you have an identity language can’t be of any help

    what do you think?

  • Tracey Mc

    Thanks for mention. For what it’s worth, I now do believe that language does frame our perspective and can effect change, albeit at a glacial pace.

    I’ve come a long way since I walked out on the meeting in college.

    Girl power!

    Tracey McCormick