Roundtable: Amnesty UK’s Video on Saudi Women (and Men)

Roundtable: Amnesty UK’s Video on Saudi Women (and Men) November 24, 2011

Editor’s note: When Azra forwarded us this article, everyone had something to say.  Below are thoughts from several MMW contributors.

Azra: I saw this post from The Atlantic come up in my twitter feed, and was intrigued. And then I saw the video and read Max Fisher’s thoughts. My intrigue turned to disappointment.

[See the bottom of this post for a transcript of the video.]

Amnesty UK’s video paints the entire country in one broad stroke, with a vaguely Middle Eastern man (complete with accent) instructs a silent, voiceless Saudi Arabian woman of the finer points of Saudi patriarchy. The insinuation here is clear: Saudi Arabian men are boorish, repressive, and domineering to voiceless, submissive Saudi women. There is little accountability for the role the Saudi government and law plays in how Saudi women are treated. Fisher proclaims the film is “at points surprisingly entertaining,” “disconcertingly funny,” and: “highlights both the violence implicit in the Saudi patriarchal system and the suffocating control that men there have over women.” Touche.

What made this video all the more disappointing was reading that Amnesty hopes the video will serve as an educational aid of sorts to those unfamiliar with human rights (and, of course, Amnesty’s work in this domain). It serves as an important reminder that the submissive Arab/Muslim woman and domineering Arab/Muslim man theme is still alive and kicking, unfortunately, at an international human rights organization.

Lara: I’ve seen some excruciating things done in the name of “raising awareness”, but this not only takes the biscuit, it’s slumped in the corner scoffing packets of hobnobs, burbons and chocolate digestives. However, the teeth grinding this video inspires is worse for your teeth then any biscuit.

Eren: First of all I must say that I and my family have always supported Amnesty’s work. We make donations regularly because we believe that this organization has made a difference in terms of human rights advocacy in Latin America that is where we come from.

Looking at this video was a huge disappointment for me. Some of the things I liked about Amnesty were that they made an effort to understand local contexts, they tried to avoid the stereotypes and they advocated for human rights at the local level while being mindful of cultural and religious differences. This video, which unsuccessfully attempts to use black humour, does nothing to advocate for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Diana: While I do like this a little better than say, videos of Saudi women being bludgeoned to death by stoning or the trite depictions of seas of burka donned women, this Amnesty UK video has its problems too.

The video carries with it, besides its overarching message, a kind-of satirical racism, as exemplified by the narrator’s shirtless displays of might juxtaposed against pictures of an endless desert or a series of pyramids.

In viewing the video a second time, I realized there was more subtle racism to be had in the video’s background images. For example in the beginning of the video when the narrating character speaks of women, images of white swans appear on the left of the screen. A few seconds later, when the narrating character speaks of men [Arab/Saudi men] a picture of a macaque appears on the right of the screen. Is there a comparison being drawn between Arab men and primates here?

Krista: And the lion noises.  Don’t forget the lion noises.

Diana: I think the real question here is does this video actually do much for viewers beyond giving them a brief chuckle?

Krista: My first impression was that this looks like a way to just make fun of supposedly barbaric Saudi men.  This could be somewhat funny if it was done in Arabic and actually (to some degree) directed to Saudi women or Saudi society in general, and particularly if it was a campaign organised by Saudis themselves.  Instead, it’s done in English with an exaggerated accent and a guy who roars like a lion when he threatens punishment.  It’s funny because Saudi men are just so violent and irrational.  Uh, yeah.  That’s definitely going to do wonders to improve the situation.

Eren: On one hand, men are homogenously portrayed as mean, controlling individuals with a “thick” accent. Women, on the other hand, are just shown as silent and scared figures with no agency.  These images are upsetting especially in light of everything women in Saudi Arabia have been doing to advocate for their own rights. Amnesty’s video completely dismisses Saudi women’s efforts and agency and shuts down a conversation on how to move forward with women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Samya: What struck me most in this video was placing a “silenced” woman, who does not even look like a Saudi. The lady just moves her head as a sign of obedience, and makes some “exaggerated” face expressions. On one hand, I do agree that the guardian system in Saudi Arabia still controls the lives of women in different ways, but things have changed. But on the other hand, today, more Saudi women are educated, have access to modern platforms to express themselves and occupy senior positions in government and private sectors compared to the past. The Amnesty video assumed that women in Saudi Arabia prefer staying silent towards what is taking place against them, but it forgot that there are women like Manal Al Shareef, Wajiha Al Hwaider, and Muna Abu Suleiman who were able to challenge the system and use blogs, television, Facebook, and twitter to become a symbol of success for Saudi women.

Azra: The film is a disservice to the work of women on the ground working to better their lives. There are no images of an empowered woman asserting herself here. And to the contrary of what the video portrays and Fisher says, they do exist.

Lara: As already stated it’s not in Arabic, so it’s not really for Saudi women. Saudi women don’t get to speak in it either. Arab men do, but in the form of a patronising narrator and a snarling man. So that’s Arab women and men being both ignored and stereotyped. Since it is widely known, to the point of it being an Islamophobe’s Godwins law, that the Saudi regime restricts and treats women poorly, one wonders why this video had to be made in such a manner. Did Amnesty want a slice of the stereotyping/othering/infantilising media action that frequently occurs when Muslim women, especially Saudi Muslim women are mentioned? I am absolutely stunned that a supposedly respected organisation like Amnesty instead of including, or rather centering Saudi women, made some sub-Borat pisstake instead and considers that as activism.


Transcript of the video

(Note: the woman and man featured in the video are the same two people throughout, although the settings change often.  All of the spoken lines are spoken by the man; the woman is silent throughout the clip.)

[Middle Eastern man wears gray suit and stands against a desert background; he speaks English with a strong Arab accent]: As a woman living in Saudi Arabia, do you often worry that you will be a victim of state brutality?

[Cut to woman in a short-sleeved red floral dress. Woman nods.]

[Same man, standing against blue sky and clouds background]: Well, worry no more. This educational video will help.

[Woman against blue background. Woman smiles. Flowers pop up around her on the screen.]

[“How not to get punished for being a woman” appears onscreen around man, who says the same thing]

[Man standing in front of ducks on a pond background]:The first thing to understand is as a woman you are the property of a man.  Either your father, brother, or husband.  This man is your guardian. [Woman nods.] It’s his job to look after you.

[Man now standing alongside a picture of a monkey in the background]: And it’s your job to do exactly what he says. Follow these simple tips and you will be fine.

[Woman smiles and gives a thumbs up with both hands. Smiley faces pop up around her on the screen]

[“STUDY AND WORK” appears on the screen]. Man says same thing with pyramids in the background.

[Woman in front of a chalkboard in the background. She raises her hands as though she is pleading]

Man’s voice: Ask your guardian if you can go to school. Fingers crossed [woman crosses fingers on both hands] he’ll say yes.

[Man with the picture of a cow on the beach in the background]: You’ll learn how to perform your primary role in life.

[Woman holding a four-tier cake on a tray, slight smile on her face] Which is to be an ideal housewife

[Woman holding a baby, slight smile on her face; strollers pop up around her on the screen] and a good mother.

[Man with cow in background]:You can also train to be

[Woman with graduation cap and a forced smile] a teacher

[Graduation cap disappears and a nurse’s cap appears in its place]:or a nurse.

[Man in front of a jumping dolphin in the background]: But remember: ask permission from your guardian unless you want to be punished.

[Cut to red background, man wears white tank top, screams “Argh,” flails arms, flexes arms, raises fists, and licks his teeth.]

[Cut to woman who opens her mouth in fear]

[“MOVEMENT” appears on screen against a pyramid background and man on screen, cut to man standing with a green snake in the background]: A woman’s place is in a home.

[Woman nods. Homes pop up around her on a screen.]

[Cut to man against snake background]: A man’s place is everywhere else. [Globes pop up alongside man and disappear.]

Here are some simple dos and don’ts to help you remember.

[Cut to woman walking from kitchen to bedroom]:Walking from the kitchen  to the bedroom: Yes.

[Woman against a green background, planes fly across the screen]: Boarding a plane on your own?

[Man with snake background]: no.

Walking from the bedroom to the bathroom: yes. [Woman walks from a picture of a bedroom to the bathroom]

Riding a car: no. [Woman drives a red monster truck from right to left side of the screen.]

Walking from the bathroom to the bedroom: yes. [Woman walks from a picture of a bathroom to the bedroom].

Taking public transport: no. [Woman sits on top of a British-style double decker red bus.]
Remember: ask permission first. [Picture of a tiger’s face in the background.] Unless you want to be punished.

[Man in white tank top roars (sound effects sound like a lion). Cut to woman who opens her mouth wide in fear, raises her shoulders]


[Man stands in front of a background of the pyramids]. Health.

[Woman stands in front of a blue background, her arms are removed, and blood spurts from her shoulders. She looks at each shoulder spurting blood].

[Man stands in front of a desert background] Man: Medical emergency? Your instinct might be to call your doctor or rush to the hospital.

Stop. Your doctor cannot treat you without your guardian’s say so.

Remember: Ask permission unless you want to be bunished.

[Man stands in front of red background in his tank top, laughs maniacally and flexes both arms].

[Woman brings both fists to her mouth in fear].

OTHER STUFF [appears on screen]

[Man standing in front of a background of a salad on a plate]. There is a lot of other things you shouldn’t do.
[Woman riding on top of train]. Don’t catch a train with men.

[Woman wearing a hat and wearing a briefcase with a city in the background]. Don’t go to offices with men.

[Woman sitting at a table in a café]. Don’t go to restaurants with men.

[Woman relaxing on the beach]. Don’t go to beaches with men.

[Woman on a roller coaster]. Don’t go to amusement parks

[Woman skating at an ice rink] or ice skating rinks with men.

[Woman hitting a tennis ball with a racquet.] Don’t play sport.

[Woman raising her hand in a courtroom]. Don’t attempt to speak in court.

[Man in suit with salad background]. So here’s a quick recap. You must get permission if you ever want to study, work, travel, see the doctor, or use the law.

[Man in front of white ducks on a pond in background]. Remember. Remember. Remember. Ask permission. Unless you want to be punished.

[Man in front of red background in white tank top. Roars, flails arms about, and raises right fist in triumph/anger.]

[Cut to cue cards]: “In 2011, women in Saudi Arabia were promised the right to vote in the next municipal election.  Despite this, women’s basic human rights continue to be violated by the guardian system, which authorizes male control over women.”

[Cut to yellow screen with Amnesty international symbol of a candle with barbed wire and TV and link to watch more.]

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