A chat with the team behind "Dirty Laundry."
‘Dirty Laundry,’ a powerful campaign by NGO ABAAD and multi-disciplinary artist Remie Akl, created by Leo Burnett, took a bold take on silencing and shaming rape victims.
Leo Burnett Beirut's Razan Mneimneh, Manager Communications, and Rana Khoury, Executive Creative Director, along with Ghida Anani, Founder & Director at ABAAD, explain how this unique piece of work came to life, how important it was to strike the right tone, and why the fight continues.
'Dirty Laundry' doesn't mince words but, poetically, asks for accountability. How did you strike the right balance to engage viewers (and stakeholders) without alienating them?
Razan Mneimneh. As Arab women, we already impose so much self-censorship on ourselves (and possibly even the women around us) that it’s hard to think of a reality that’s not as daunting and exposed as 'Dirty Laundry:' not allowing ourselves to go on late night walks, being very careful with the personal stories we share with our neighbors, and of course, all the not-so-pretty things that can go on sometimes behind the scenes [and] that we keep under the radar.
I think this is why we find so many supportive comments by Arab women on the film. It just feels too familiar, it’s a reality we can’t escape, no matter how much we try to run away from it. And I’m so thrilled it resonated that way with viewers.
Rana Khoury. I think creativity and poetry are a reflection of reality as ugly as it may be, yet in words that are much more insightful and that can move a human to the core. Viewers and stakeholders are first humans engaged in today’s reality, and our main objective with this film is to pass on a real emotion to be able to trigger change. Once you feel the pain, the need for accountability becomes evident.
How to identify the right timing and tone to broach such critical, society-changing issues and assess how receptive the environment will be?
R.M. This is such a delicate topic that I think we’re continuously trying to dissect and figure out. We knew for sure we had to launch the video after the holiday season, for example, because that would have meant people wouldn’t be as emotionally prepared to digest a piece of content this powerful and harrowing. You would think we would’ve figured it out by now and gotten it down to a numerical equation, but I really do believe that when it comes to vivid descriptions of material this sensitive, the best approach is to evaluate the conversations happening in real time around you, and cross your fingers before you jump head first.
R.K. In a country going through a major crisis like Lebanon, bringing women’s rights to the forefront of people’s priorities is definitely very challenging. Yet, the strategy is to find the contextual elements that will not make your campaign alien to its environment but without compromising on the boldness of its message.
What other challenges did you face creating this campaign and how did you address them?
R.M. Although I’ve reported on sexual assault in the Arab world multiple times in the past, it was my first time working this closely with survivors, hearing their stories first-hand, and experiencing the lingering underlying heaviness that comes with knowing the law does not protect these women the way it should.
Besides, it was only a year ago that ABAAD launched #PriorityToo, urging women to speak out and seek help after noticing that the number of calls to the hotline was significantly lower amongst a crippling economic and living crisis in the country. And in many ways, the majority of women in the country are still struggling from these same issues. But we wanted to bring their concerns to the spotlight, the way we always have.
We wanted both lawmakers and the public to pay attention to the absurdly short sentence rapists get. And we wanted to fight the notion that a family’s dignity and honor are connected to a woman’s body, all while incorporating 'Dirty Laundry, Not Your Honor; webisodes, and the protest in front of parliament under the umbrella of #NoShameNoBlame. Although it seemed out of reach at first and difficult to incorporate, we found that all three elements fell perfectly under the notion of liberating raped voices, telling these women that they don’t have to bottle their stories up forever, and that justice is their right.
R.K. I think the main challenge when dealing with such a harsh topic and meeting real-life survivors is to also protect ourselves as a team, the influencers and the artists we work with, the directors, etc. because it’s practically impossible to keep a distance like you do for a shampoo ad, for example, where you can stay focused on the campaign objectives.
The other challenge is to minimize the backlash for a campaign that deals with sexual assault in a society and a world where rape victims are still shamed and where the topic is still a source of violent debate.
And maybe the most important challenge is to be up to the promise you have signed up for, in this case forcing accountability and changing a law.
How was 'Dirty Laundry' received and how do you manage the aftermath of such a campaign?
R.M. The video garnered over a million views on Instagram the same day it was posted. But what was most surprising to me was the plethora of positive and supportive comments, most notably from Arab women themselves, who echoed the sentiment conveyed through the lyrics, repeating lines in the comment section, and advocating for a serious sentence for a serious crime through and through.
That’s not to say that the burden falls on survivors to speak up so we can achieve real systematic change. It’s merely a reflection of the absurdity of having a rapist get the same jail sentence as someone who attempted robbery or signed a blank check in Lebanon; all the while, the survivor suffers in silence for fear of tarnishing the family’s honor if she reports the criminal.
And thankfully, the sentiment was clearly conveyed. Our hashtag going viral on Twitter and getting the attention of politicians and lawmakers certainly did help. 8/10 parliament blocs have already pledged to make the necessary amendments to the law once parliament is able to pass laws. This was always our ultimate goal.
R.K. In terms of numbers, engagement, and media coverage, I think it’s mind-blowing. But taking the time to read every comment, every message we received that affected someone’s life, that helped someone to speak up or seek justice, anywhere in the world, definitely sends a message that we are doing something right.
Ghida Anani. 'No Shame no Blame' (with 'Dirty Laundry' being an activation in it) was very well received by the audience, mainly because our messaging was based on facts and real human stories of women being sexually assaulted by men. When people hear survivors sharing their own personal stories, public opinion usually accepts the ideas behind our campaign much faster, although it’s a super sensitive topic, especially in Arab societies where families try their best to hide these crimes because for them, it’s a direct attack on the family’s honor.
This campaign addresses the issue of sexual abuse in Lebanon, but ABAAD is active across the MENA region. How important is it to adjust the discourse depending on the country you want to consider?
G.A. In ABAAD’s campaigns, the human stories are from Lebanon, and all the facts are from Lebanon, but the messaging usually targets the whole MENA region. ABAAD operates in countries all over the Middle East and North Africa, and our discourse that has to do with women and girls is almost the same in all these countries.
Messaging in Lebanon is usually bolder than [in] countries like Jordan and Egypt, mainly because some other societies don’t accept speaking so boldly about sexual assault, no matter how innovative and creative the messaging is and the way we present it; so, we try to focus on keeping the same message but changing the delivery and presentation. The notions of honor and dignity exist everywhere in the MENA region and not just in Lebanon, which is why we see many other countries adopting our campaigns with very minimal changes.
How does 'Dirty Laundry' falls within ABAAD's general strategy to drive societal change?
G.A. ABAAD has been launching and executing campaigns for a long time, and our theory of change is a very clear and integral part of our mission. We do believe that change happens when we tackle all needs. Since its establishment, ABAAD has worked on providing direct services, providing safe spaces and shelters for women and survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assaults, in addition to the awareness work at the community level, and the advocacy campaigns and lobbying with stakeholders and lobby makers. For ABAAD, it is very clear what we need to change and how.
Of course, a huge part of our mission is achieving tangible change; that also goes for every other NGO in Lebanon considering we focus on lobbying and coming up with engaging campaigns to change public opinion, and the support of society is an essential part of what we do so they can accept and actually embrace this change.