Had it not been for the Arabic, one would have thought the billboard was in America or Europe.
“With all my strength against violence… Men say no to violence against women” reads the billboard, which sits on the highway in the Beirut suburb of Furn al-Shebbak.
The billboard was one of 14 set up around the city this month by non-profit group ABAAD, the self-described resource center for gender equality in the Middle East. They are part of a campaign that aims to promote the idea of men supporting the fight to abolish violence against women.
“This is pioneering in the sense of our focus on engaging men in ending violence against women, all men,” said Anthony Keedi, the campaign’s project coordinator. “It’s a call for action.”
It is the first large-scale media campaign for a women’s issue run by men. As the billboards appear in conservative neighborhoods such as along the airport road as well as in more commercial areas like the Beirut-Jounieh Highway, the message is highly visible.
The campaign is part of a number of other efforts over the past few years to show that women’s rights is not just a female issue. In 2009, local women’s rights organization KAFA worked on a project called “Approaches and Strategies for Engaging Men & Boys in Ending Violence against Women.” The project drew a lot of positive attention to the issue, though ABAAD’s campaign is more highly visible.
In addition to the billboards, ABBAD, which means “dimensions” in Arabic, is also distributing flyers, advertising in the papers and sending out text messages.
Reactions have been mostly positive, with a number of young students volunteering to support the initiative, said Keedi, a psychologist who grew up in the US.
“We have only received one [critical] email, from a woman,” noted ABAAD director Ghida Anani, a medical social worker who founded the NGO last June. In her email, the woman said ABAAD should conduct its campaign in more progressive societies where, she said, violence is more prevalent. “But I wrote back to explain the scope of our work, and she seemed understanding,” said Anani.
ABAAD—which is made up of social workers, psychologists, activists and other experts in the field, male and female—also set up a center to give mental health support to men who have been violent with women.
“We are coming from the concept that we need a resource center for gender equality with resources, therapy, training and policy development for the MENA region as a whole,” Anani told NOW Lebanon.
The non-profit has developed partnerships in capitals across the region and is also supported by key international NGOs, including the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, and International Medical Corps, thought its main focus for now remains local.
Though Lebanon seems more open than other countries in the region regarding women’s freedom and sexual matters, it is still lagging behind the West on women’s issues. Indeed, a draft law to criminalize domestic violence stalled in parliament last June, when a number of religious authorities—particularly Dar al-Fatwa and the Higher Shia Islamic Council—slammed the legislation for challenging Sharia values.
In spite of the resistance, a number of politicians backed the law.
During a phone call with NOW Lebanon, MP Ghassan Mouhkeiber who is on the parliament’s Human Rights Commission, said, “The work now lies within parliament to approve the Law to Protect Women from Family Violence, but I am sure it will come through.”
MP Atef Majdalani, another member of the commission, was also optimistic about the bill. “I think the law will pass,” he told NOW Lebanon. “It’s time to stop speaking of man or woman, and to speak of the citizen, who has rights.”
“We must stop clinging to outdated ways of thinking and look toward the future and progress,” he added, noting potential negative repercussions of doing otherwise.
Indeed, to Nicolas—another male women’s rights activist, who, for professional reasons, did not want to give his real name—said repressing women negatively impacts society as a whole.
Gender issues should be held on the same level as economic issues, such as unemployment or workers’ rights, he added. “There is still resistance in the field that women’s rights is a women’s issue, but it is time for everyone to partake in the battle.”