When racism, Islamophobia and #BringBackOurGirls collide

What happens when racism, Islamophobia, and #BringBackOurGirls collide in a single advertisement for charity? More to the point, how does that even happen? RA’EESA PATHER explains.

Ogilvy ad for Sahara

I tried to ask the gurus at Ogilvy and Mather Durban what exactly they were snorting when they conceptualised an ad for women’s abuse organisation, The Sahara Shelter, but they remained mum – our creative director is out of town, they said. Be that as it may, the ad is still fluttering around as a demonstration of just how backward advertising in this country is.

Initially when I looked at the ad, I saw a black woman in purdah – a religious practice in certain Muslim communities where women cover their entire bodies with the exception of their eyes. Among young South African Muslims, purdah is often translated as “ninja”. (My but those women dress stealthily.)

The slogan “Your voice is her voice #BringBackOurGirls” was mindlessly plonked in the bottom left corner of the image, while The Sahara Shelter had stamped its logo at the opposite end.

Clearly, Ogilvy and co. were getting into the Ramadan spirit by announcing Muslim women do not have a voice and somehow need to be saved from their fabric prisons. Firstly, this is not France. There is no burka ban. Secondly, Muslim women have voices. Have you not heard about so-and-so’s aunty who messed up the biryani?

But then I looked at the ad again. I squinted at it and saw that what I had mistaken for purdah was actually black hands. How visionary. Guess some people are still awaiting the swart gevaar.

The ad was donated to The Sahara Shelter by the Afrisun Casino Group. According to Afrisun’s Phumla Mutle, the group’s previous CEO sponsored the ad, and the current CEO knows nothing about it. It’s a casino, but they don’t know what they’re spending their money on. Crikey.

Last year, the World Health Organisation reported that 60,000 women and children were victims of domestic abuse each month in South Africa.

Globally this number is unmatched: when it comes to harming women and children, nobody does it better. And these are just the cases that are reported to the police. Charities like The Sahara Shelter, which provides transitional accommodation to abused women and their children, are not only necessary in South Africa, they are a priority.

But does this justify the advert’s racial slur? Aroona Chetty, director of the organisation, said that the shelter hadn’t thought of these questions and insisted that domestic abuse is perpetrated by “all races”.

In using black hands to evoke domestic violence, to show a woman being pinned down and silenced, the ad perpetuates stereotypes that racially target black men as barbaric patriarchs. Black men are not the only perpetrators of domestic abuse in South Africa, or have you not listened to enough Oscar Extra?

The use of #BringBackOurGirls is puzzling. Ultimately, we need to give as much attention to South African women as we would to those schoolgirls in Nigeria. If not, we ourselves become abusers.

It seems as though the ad piggybacks onto the plight of the Nigerian girls and their suffering to sell the torment of our women at home. But this is advertising and what are ethics anyway?

Still, #BringBackOurGirls ties into the Islamic context of the image. Did Ogilvy’s crème de la crème really not see the similarities? Black hands morphed into purdah to highlight domestic abuse; a double slap to two communities who face constant prejudice. By feeding into the bigotry – even if it is unconsciously so – the ad-makers are ironically stifling the voices of the people they seek to help. And the “you” that they speak to – presumably the white saviours of the world – becomes complicit in making the voiceless even more voiceless.

In the wake of Ogilvy’s recent Feed A Dog –  err, Child – debacle, it’s clear some of the nation’s brightest visionaries are in fact blind. It’s time they open their eyes to the reality of society instead of trying to make a quick buck off the racist rhetoric that still manipulates so many minds today.