The Appearance and Disappearance of Women's Image: What triggers the manipulation of Western advertising when representing women in Saudi Arabia?
Written 13-11-2017 by Fatma Al Mansoury for MA Graphic Media Design at the University of Arts London
Published online 12-02-2018


This paper is a practice-led research strengthened by theoretical ideas. In three sections, it will unfold how imagery in advertising – or lack thereof – can underpin stereotypes. More specifically it will look at the challenging visual communication that Western brands use when entering the Saudi Arabian market.

The representation of Saudi women remains old-fashioned. Whether it’s IKEA’s 2012 catalogue where women in the Saudi Arabian version were airbrushed out or the first issue of Vogue Arabia, published in March this year, when a veiled Western woman was used on the cover. Such examples cause a stir in the debate about women’s rights, especially when these visual choices were not made in request by the government, but rather by the corporations who claim to be socially responsible.

You need to have a concrete understanding of cultural principles when it comes to designing effective adverts for a more successful outcome. Academics agree that in Saudi Arabia, as the topic of women remains sensitive, adverts directed towards, or about women are often poorly dealt with. (Shyan Fam, Waller, and Erdogan, 2004; Kalliny, and Gentry, 2007) Western brands in Saudi Arabia, whenever possible avoid taking political stands, however by distributing in the country, corporations are put in socially critical circumstances, specifically as women’s rights is a very crucial subject, however it may be represented. This raises some thought-provoking but important questions. For example, would a Western company publish an advert with a woman driver in Saudi Arabia?

This paper will look at history, women’s stand and visual communication, to understand why, what has been done about it and the consequences that followed.

Chapter 1 – History & Culture: And contemporary responses

Social norms and conflicts
After a series of conquests starting in 1902, Ibn Saud united four regions into one state in 1932 and that was the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Making it an absolute monarchy governed by Islamic ideologies. (North and Tripp, 2009)

Wahhabism[1], a very small branch of Islam worldwide is the major religion in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Shias, however, only make up 15% of Saudi Arabia's population despite being one of the most common branches of Islam worldwide. As Saudi Arabia’s government is run on Wahhabi ideologies, these create intense conflicts with the Shias in the country. The differences between the two branches are Shia Muslims believe that other religions and beliefs are equally as true. However, Wahhabis are ultraconservative. They believe in the return to “authentic” Islam and removal “impurities” such as any Western innovations or ideas. (Tschirhart, 2014)
Fatwas and Women’s position
By understanding the notions by which Saudi Arabia is governed, you will understand why it is still one of the few countries that still practice gender segregation. Respected religious leaders are given power in the government, making Islamic Sharia law. However, there is no legal system to follow, giving judges in legal matters the freedom to make a personal interpretation of Sharia in any case. Different judgements may be given even in apparently identical cases. (Otto, 2010) Along the same lines, when religious leaders give an official interpretation of Sharia law, it’s called a fatwa which then becomes law. It can be minuscule from “do not watch this TV show” to issues of human rights, such as women driving – which is forbidden as they are seen as mentally incapable of doing so. (Al Alhareth and Al Dighrir, 2015)

Women’s rights is a hot topic worldwide, but in Saudi Arabian society, the imbalance between women and men is noticeable. Women have to wear a black “Abaya”, a cloth covering their body and hair, and by old traditions need to cover their face, only showing their eyes. However, in recent years, it has become acceptable for new generations to not cover their face in public, especially for foreign women.

In addition, there is a more disturbing concept that is holding Saudi women back, called male guardianship. Under Saudi law, your duty as a male is to be responsible for your sister, cousin, wife or even mother. You are expected to give permission and make the decisions you think are right for the female, regarding marriage, divorce, education, employment and health. Making adult women minors throughout their lifespan and relying on their guardians to represent them. (Human Rights Watch, 2008)

In 2012, a new government policy was released where the guardians receive a text message on their phone whenever a woman in their custody attempts to leave the county. (O'Mahony, 2012) Making it impossible to leave Saudi Arabia by choice or domestic abusive environments.

Yet, if there is any time that there has been a little light of hope for women’s rights, it is now. The kingdom recently celebrated its’ first International Women’s Day in February 2017. The three-day event hosted by King Fahd consisted of female speakers and showcases to celebrate women’s achievements in education, culture, medicine literature, ironically, however, it was strictly for a female audience. (Fareed, 2017) Some might speculate it was more of a media ploy than actual development as little to nothing of women’s rights had improved at that point, however, it turned out that was the beginning of bigger events later on that year.

The Saudi Woman Who Dared to Drive
Since then, many brave women have risked their lives to raise awareness and encourage other females to speak out. One of whom, is activist Manal Al-Sharif who dared to challenge society's rules. In 2011, she founded the campaign “Women2Drive” on Facebook and encouraged women with international driver’s licences to go out and drive on 17 June 2011. To encourage her campaign, she recorded herself driving in May and posted the video to YouTube. After the video was viewed more than a hundred thousand times on the first day, she was quickly arrested for “rallying public protest” and after nine days she was released on bail. On 26 September 2017, King Salman ordered all women the freedom to try for a driving licence from June 2018. (Hubbard, 2017) Which is one of the most important “laws” to break, as it’s the first great step towards independence. It means women no longer need to rely on a driver hired by a family member, or her “mahram” to drive them to any destination which will help aid the increase of women’s involvement in the workforce where previously, if you couldn’t afford a driver, you stayed at home as public transportation was discouraged.

“Just for giving me his car keys, my brother was detained twice, and he was harassed to the point he had to quit his job as a geologist, leave the country with his wife and two-year-old son. My father had to sit in a Friday sermon listening to the imam condemning women drivers and calling them prostitutes amongst tons of worshippers, some of them our friends and family of my own father.”
-       Manal Al-Sharif, 2013

She received many public threads of allegations that she would be killed or raped to stop that campaign. When June 17 came around, even though the streets were packed with police cars, hundreds of women drove and none were arrested that specific day. (A Saudi Woman Who Dared To Drive, 2013) This shows that even when a woman has support from her “mahram”, she cannot cheat the system. 

Chapter 2 – The rise of Islamic feminism

Social media opening doors for a movement
The boundaries and laws set for females in Saudi Arabia come from ancient beliefs, but the spread of the internet has given women a platform of freedom to express themselves - which has created the movement of Islamic feminism. (Tschirhart, 2014) Because of the rapid increase of online platforms, the internet creates a “third space”, a space that the government cannot control, and that gives Saudi women a voice. (Newsom, and Lengel, 2012; Tschirhart, 2014) Previous attempts to form physical unions in public spheres were altered due to law restrictions giving rise to social media which has become a powerful tool for Islamic feminists as previously mentioned with activists like Manal Al-Sharif who was arrested several times. (Tschirhart, 2014)

I put this theory to the test through primary research in Unit 3. By using a comparative strategy, I looked at how Saudi women were portrayed in news outlets in the West and how they portray themselves on social platforms, in this case, Instagram. The study to the left repeated the same image, almost indicating that all the different articles are about the same type of woman. While the self-represented images display numerous personalities and both covered and uncovered, showing that Saudi women are not identical.

Differences between Islamic feminism and Western feminism
When Saudi women hold dialogues on social media, they don’t necessarily all share the same view on the restrictions set. The perspectives shared rather vary greatly. Some women are rather angered by the sudden movement where women challenge the dress code, male guardianship, travel or even driving. These women started an opposition campaign called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” With 5400 signatures within two months, they demand punishments for those inciting equality between women and men. They believe these are mainly Western ideas that do not work for the needs of a Saudi woman. (Zoepf, 2010) As the movement is fairly new, Islamic feminists are still testing the waters and applying some suitable concepts from Western feminism, as they see complete freedom as a notion of increasing divorces, addictions etc. (Tschirhart, 2014) Especially because there is great resistance within the community of Saudi women. The Islamic feminists feel the pressure, and the need to prove that they don’t work against the ethics of Islam, but rather within them. That they are working for basic social benefits in a culturally acceptable and sustainable way to enhance opportunities for women. This differs from Western feminism, as they have most of the basic human rights, but are critiquing male supremacy as a whole, and fighting for complete equality in social, economic and political conditions. (Al Alhareth and Al Dighrir, 2015)

Western perceptions that are holding the movement back
Because Saudi Islamic and Western feminism are on different levels, there are many misconceptions between the two. Mohanty (1986) argues that Western feminism still views “Third World Women" as helpless and victims of a system. Swift assumptions are made about the veil in Muslim countries as if it is a costume that signifies a universal language of oppression, she continues. There is a need for a space that allows differences to be recognized, and for both Western and Islamic feminists to be able to create a multicultural dialogue. (Basarudin, 2002) It is important to highlight that women’s struggles and experiences are connected to class, state, and race. (Basarudin, 2002) Because when we contextualise feminist movements based on all these factors, only then can we measure how far women have come in their fight. That is where some of the miscommunication happens between the West and the Islamic State. Western feminists often compare Islamic feminists to an agenda that is based on their environment and situation, without necessarily recognizing the improvement Muslim women have accomplished so far. For example, seeing veiled women as oppressed, is unreasonable, as Muslim women are fighting for the right to choose, and not to unveil. For some, the veil and modesty are part of their identity, and stripping them from their right to choose how to dress, would rather be the opposite of feminism.

Chapter 3 - How Western corporations advertise in Saudi Arabia

Censoring ads
By understanding Saudi history and the women’s movement. It is then interesting to see how advertising plays a role in that society. As the topic of women is complex, advertising directed towards women reflects that. Expressing sexuality has to be very little, to nonexistent. (Shyan Fam, Waller, and Erdogan, 2004) This is making it difficult for Western brands to advertise in Saudi Arabia. Often advertisements that are designed for Culture A have to be put through a process of symbolic manipulation to make it appropriate for Culture B. Because implying new ways to interpret a product is more cost-conscious than producing a new one. (Zirinski, 2005)

It is established that the results are more effective if the creative execution has an understanding of cultural beliefs. (Shyan Fam, Waller, and Erdogan, 2004; Kalliny, and Gentry, 2007) Saudi Arabia takes up 40 percent of expenditures, making it a very valuable market in the Middle East. It is also a country where honour and repetition are important, as we have established earlier, hence, the pressure that companies face to advertise in the KSA, as the Saudi people rely on the reputation of the brand for honesty and expertise. (Sallam, 2011)

The subconscious effects advertising has on the public
Commercial advertising, unlike the media, is not only meant to inform and sell as much as possible but to affect decisions, behaviours and views. It is a declarative political statement hidden in a creative message. (Zirinski, 2005)

When the ad is published, the public is not actively seeking memorable participation most people don’t think much of it. However, long after the viewing, the message will stay with you. We are usually presented with information in the form of imagery that romanticizes different life situations. This data is designed to be easily understandable and this information then stays in our subconscious, argues Hayko. (2010) With this being said, let’s take a look at how women are portrayed in Western adverts, published in the KSA.

In Home: IKEA
Official IKEA catalogue (2012), left Sweden, right Saudi Arabia.
It is intriguing to analyse adverts based on a home environment. Because as a woman in Saudi Arabia, your supposed safe space is inside the home. IKEA is a well-known International brand, that developed from the Swedish lifestyle and values. Because the Swedish compared to Saudi values are distinctly different, IKEA has to compromise their brand values to fit the Saudi Arabian market. For example, they have the understanding that the target audience in the KSA is the homemakers – the women. Therefore, in the advertisement language, they tend to use the feminine form of Arabic verbs. As if they are speaking to women, even when they are saying something general as “Make space for what matters” (أعدي مساحة للأشیاء المھمة). (Kotaiba Abdul Aal, and Eskander, 2010)

With that being said, an incident happened in October 2012 that created countless headlines worldwide. IKEA released its’ annual catalogue, which looked the same in every country, except Saudi Arabia. The images were all the same as the other catalogues, but all the women were airbrushed out! Not long after the controversy IKEA released an official apology saying, “We should have reacted and realised that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue conflicts with the Ikea Group values.” (Quinn, 2012) The company went on disclaiming that the Saudi government was a factor in the incident, by stating “It is not the local franchisee that has requested the retouch of the discussed pictures. The mistake happened during the work process occurring before presenting the draft catalogue for IKEA Saudi Arabia. We take full responsibility for the mistakes made.” (Sterling, 2012)

In a society where a female's supposed safe position is in their home, to eliminate such portrayal in a lifestyle ad, idealises life circumstances. It would have been a different situation if women weren’t there to begin with but to actively airbrush women out of the picture in a culture where women’s rights are neglected, is taking a political stand. It is treating the sex of females like they are invisible and non-existent. Yet that is IKEA’s main target audience, which is a very thought-provoking conflict of interest. When a company are trying to target the audience, but not envision them.

In Fashion:  Vouge Arabia
Vogue Arabia, first issue, March 2017
We look at the fashion industry which offers another intriguing perspective, with their main target again, being – women. How do they advertise to Saudis, facing limitations around dress code?

On March 2017, the global franchise published the first issue of Vogue Arabia. This version is published in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan and United Arab Emirates. This is particularly interesting to highlight, because the Editor-in-Chief for the launch was Saudi Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz. For the first issue, they chose to have supermodel Gigi Hadid on the cover. The American model inherited her Muslim background from her Palestinian father Mohamed Hadid. (BBC News, 2017)

Months before the release, Editor-in-Chief Abdulaziz made a statement saying, “Perhaps outside of our region there’s an underlying assumption that Middle Eastern women aren’t empowered, when we actually have a long history of accomplishments — though those stories don’t surface often enough. One particular aim we have is that Vogue Arabia will play a role in elevating these stories to the global stage through the medium and lens of fashion and culture.” (Hoang, 2016)

The controversy that happened, revolved around cultural appropriation. You can see Hadid using a headscarf and a veil, two holy cultural symbols, that the Western model does not stand for. Although she was born Muslim, she had never prior made any religious statements, and the year before, she was posing nude on the cover of Vogue Paris, which was a definite conflict of interest. Arab women felt it was a hypocrisy to put her in a veil, only to promote fashion. People questioned the idea why the American model with a Western brand would even be the top pick for the cover, as many Arab women would have been a more appropriate choice to celebrate the launch. (Vocativ, 2017)

Abdulaziz never issued an official statement following the controversy, but she had prior said, “The collage of countries across the Arab world are long-deserving of a place in fashion history, and there’s no better first ‘face’ to lead the charge for Vogue Arabia than Gigi, a model who defines tomorrow’s entrepreneurial and dynamic generation.” (Morgan, 2017)

The Saudi Princess’s time as Editor-in-Chief did not last long however, as she was let go after only two issues. "I stand behind my values and vision for Vogue Arabia and I refused to compromise when I felt the publisher’s approach conflicted with the values which underpin our readers and the role of the Editor-in-Chief in meeting those values in a truly authentic way," said Abdulaziz. (Abraham, 2017)
Left: Vogue Arabia June 2017. Right: Vogue Arabia November 2017
Fast forward a few months Halima Aden was featured on the cover of the June issue. Aden blew up in 2017 as the first hijabi to ever walk international runways and be featured on international campaigns. She has been featured on Allure Magazine, CR Fashion Book, commercial for Fenty Beauty by Rihanna and even walked for Kanye West’s Yeezy fashion show all just within a year. (Reed, 2017) She became a symbol for diversity and a face for Muslim women which is what Vogue Arabia picked up on for their June Issue. It is refreshing to see covered Muslim women in Vogue, however the fact that she is the first hijabi model on the cover of Vogue Arabia as the face of diversity, yet she is not from a Middle Eastern background is startling. It speaks loudly about the lack of representation of Middle Eastern women as Aden is from African-American descent.

The November Issue later that year, pays tribute to Egyptian Pharaoh queen Nefertit. Vogue repeats a similar controversy as the first cover from March 2017, by paying tribute to Eastern culture with a Western model with no direct connection to the culture, in this case Rihanna. Vogue Arabia’s new Editor-in-Chief Manuel Arnaut explained “We are dedicating the issue to strong and dynamic women who are changing the world. Rihanna, our cover star, is one of them. Not only is she one of the most successful pop icons ever, shaping the entertainment industry with her powerful tunes and unique sense of style, she is also an advocate for diversity.” (Ghanem, 2017)

It is clear that Vogue is having difficulty adjusting to Eastern culture, as they keep highlighting Western women with vague connections to Eastern culture. In 2007, when the head of Condé Nast International, Jonathan Newhouse was first approached with the idea to launch an Arabian edition of the magazine, he was not very thrilled. In a publicly leaked email he wrote “unfortunately [we] live in the same general region as some of the most militant and violent elements … Within the Arab world, or to be more accurate, the Muslim world, there is an element which accepts Western values. There is also a powerful fundamentalist, religious element that rejects Western values. This element rejects freedom of expression, equality for women and expression of sexuality, to name three values associated with our publication … Our company has no wish to impose its values on a society that does not fully share them. And we do not wish to provoke a strongly negative, even violent reaction … So I will simply avoid it by never entering the market. And I will sleep better at night.” (Larocca, 2017)

By looking back at the mentioned covers of Vogue Arabia, you can noticeably perceive these opinions reflected back in the identity of the publication so far. You can grasp an uncomfortable attempt to balance two cultures, yet the need to not go too far away from what is considered to be the values of ‘Vogue’. Similar to the case study of IKEA, they use the strategy of targeting Arab women, yet not portraying them in that scenario.

Left: Nissan Middle East published 26 September 2017. 
Right: Volkswagen Middle East published 27 September 2017
So would a Western advert portray women drivers in Saudi Arabia? It was a visual that was never touched on previously, as again, corporations prefer not to take political stands when the effect is uncertain. But when the announcement of legal women driving became a trending subject on social media on 26 September 2017, automobile corporations were quick to jump on the subject to show support. In this case, the result of how it would be perceived was confident as the vast majority were positive about the announcement. Tragically, however, the Saudi woman remained anonymous and indirectly censored in the message, portrayed through symbolism only.

It is noticeable that international corporations are put in a difficult situation, between sticking to brand values and possibly not selling as much, or making an exception and risking a possible controversy. Social norms and restrictions in Saudi Arabia influence Western brands that market in the kingdom, furthermore that affects how they advertise. By promoting Saudi views back to the Saudi audience, they are compromising their brand values and in some cases prompting ongoing misogynistic ideologies to new generations.

They carry the burden of trying to convert what is ‘forbidden’ into halal. With limitations in resources and investment to fully explore and understand the Saudi Arabian culture before the making of the adverts. Corporations fall into the trap of using digital post-production tools to manipulate the message because it’s a faster and cheaper process. (Zirinski, 2005) Therefore, when the message comes out, the line between culture and religion is blurred. By starting this conversation, we form the first step to normalizing this topic and reshaping the future.

The audience rely on the company’s reputation for knowledge and honesty. The messages that are being sent out in adverts can affect the consumer’s outlook on the brand. Especially in print advertising, the audience rely on images for the information. (Sallam, 2011)

Corporations with bad social reputations (for example, oil or tobacco companies) are actively working on changing their negative image through environmental and sustainability initiatives. For example, Shell managed to successfully do so. These strategies can also have a negative outcome and backfire when the audience become suspicious of the authenticity of the message, the company is left with a more damaged image than before. However, when using social responsibility correctly, it is proven that consumers are enthusiastic about spending more on the related corporation. Buyers are willing to pay higher prices for products or services made by sustainable companies or even switch loyalty to brands that support non-profit organizations. (Yoon, Gürhan-Canli and Schwarz, 2006)

When it comes to the Middle East, sexuality has yet a long way to be accepted publicly, but we are so close to pushing through barriers for basic women’s rights. The way women are portrayed and the effects are vital. Therefore, corporations who have the power to contribute, but do not, are guilty of delaying the movement of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

The gap between Western feminism which sees Saudi women as victims in need of saving, and corporations that ignore issues because they do not want to get into trouble with what they think the Saudi consumers want to see, is a very important middle ground. It is a space where one needs to treat with delicacy but it is also the ground where the discussion of the female future starts to form. That is the space that businesses need to focus on when publishing images in the KSA.

Written 13-11-2017 by Fatma Al Mansoury for MA Graphic Media Design at the University of Arts London
Published online 12-02-2018

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[1] A branch of Islamic Sunni Muslims
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