"Be Beautiful and Vote" or "Be Intelligent and Vote Blank?"

A billboard advertisement calling on women to "Be Beautiful and Vote" in the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections has caused a fury among women's rights activists in the country, who are denouncing the ad as sexist and offensive. In response, one group of activists launched an online campaign, remaking the ad with the slogan "Be Intelligent and Vote Blank," and "No one cares about your rights."
Sois Belle.jpg
Activist group challenges Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)'s ad "Be Beautiful and Vote" with online campaign "Be Intelligent and Vote Blank."

BEIRUT, April 24, 2009 (MENASSAT) – It’s election season in Lebanon and billboards have sprung up like mushrooms all over the capital, Beirut. As usual, posters for the various parties running are attracting attention - some more than others - for their originality or controversial nature.

The ad that has been stirring the pot this week is the “Sois Belle et Vote”  (“Be Beautiful and Vote”) billboard from General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). In Beirut’s Ashrafiyeh area and in the Christian coastal towns such as Jbeil and Matn, giant posters of a tanned attractive brunette with the words “Sois Belle et Vote” gaze at street goers and drivers in a campaign that is viewed as an apparent attempt to attract “hip” young voters.

The same banner can be found on the FPM's website, greeting viewers who open the site for ten seconds before redirecting them to the news section of the party's website.

The campaign, perceived as a play on the famous French saying “Sois belle et Tais-Toi” (“Shut up and look Pretty”), has raised some eyebrows. In the feminist activist camp, General Aoun’s billboard ad was denounced as a direct “offense” to women.

"Be Intelligent and Vote Blank"

The newly established Beirut-based “Feminist Collective” (FC) has launched a campaign against the ad on its blog, presenting twelve points as to why the billboard campaign is disrespectful. The group is urging people to spoil their ballots until women’s rights are given more prominence on the political platforms of elections candidates.

“What does being “pretty” have anything to do with the democratic process of electing a parliament that represents our voices?” states point number three.

The group criticized the FPM for aiming to attract women voters while keeping a low number of female representatives on the party’s candidacy lists.

“Where are the women in your candidacy lists? Not a single woman?! So you want women to vote but you don’t want them nominated?” the blog states.

Following the list of reasons against the ad is the FC’s remake of the ad. The beautiful brunette has been given a black eye and the slogan “Sois Belle et Vote” is crossed out in red and changed to “Sois Intelligente et Vote Blanc” (“Be Intelligent and Vote Blank”).

On the corner of the image, “No one cares about your rights” is scribbled in Arabic.

“I’m going up to Baabda in June to exercise my right to vote in these elections because I can think, because it’s one of the only rights I have as a woman in Lebanon. But none of you will get my vote until someone presents a progressive gender equality platform. Till then, I’m voting blank,” reads a statement accompanying the image.

The FC’s initiative quickly gained ground on the popular social networking page Facebook where the image was circulated on the Lebanese network. Meanwhile, the original blog post attracted a discussion and debate.

Many commentators supported the FC’s counter-campaign, but others felt the initiative was unnecessary and over the top.

“Oh God please don’t be such paranoiacs, If you don’t want to vote just don’t! If you think that women should have 50 percent quota (in Parliament) then for Gods' sake just vote and make a change!! Don’t just sit there and talk and comment….,” read an excerpt from an anonymous entry.

MENASSAT interviewed the brain behind the FC’s campaign, Nadine Moawad, one of the co-founders of the group.

MENASSAT: Why do you think the FPM has decided to use the "pretty" and “hip” card to try and gain votes?

“I would guess that their original aim is to give a hip, young, "sexy" feel to their campaign. And the idea is novel, for sure."

"But as a political party running for the representation of men and women in this country, they should not afford to make such mistakes of running such a gender-loaded campaign as merely a "cool" billboard."

"The FPM takes pride in its constructed "liberalism," but to see such ideals translated into a reality in this billboard is disappointing."

"Women have enough problems as it is in Lebanon under the pressures of looking "pretty" all the time. They're always dieting, putting on too much make-up, and even getting bank loans for plastic surgery because a Lebanese woman's self-image and self-esteem are challenged on a daily basis by media portrayals of beauty - a constructed idea of Lebanese feminine beauty.”

MENASSAT: Could an ad like this actually attract voters in Lebanon, in your opinion?

“Guess what, they do. Since the campaign came out, I have been in debates with young women who think the billboards are funny, smart, and have given women importance."

"But enough women have voiced their support for my blog post - my mother included - and FPM supporters who are friends of mine have actually called their party offices to complain about the message of the ad.”

MENASSAT: What would you like to tell the team behind "Sois Belle et Vote" if you had the opportunity?

“I think the creators of this campaign have absolutely no awareness of the gravity of discrimination against women in Lebanon."

"We have enough distorted representations of women in mainstream media. Elections are about issues and specific social platforms."

"Who am I kidding, this is Lebanon, elections are about sectarian power. But they should be about issues. What women in Lebanon really need to hear are slogans about their rights. How about "We're supporting the campaign to protect women from family violence!" on a billboard instead? How about any concrete social issue they are endorsing other than empty idealistic concepts?”