Using Visual Symbols to Fight Stigma and Advocate for Change

Visual imagery can be a powerful medium for mobilization and awareness around a specific issue. These depictions are especially potent if they utilize a consistent symbol, one that can capture the issue in a vivid and recognizable way. The Resource Centre for Gender Equality (ABAAD), established in 2011, has risen to considerable prominence for its annual “16 Days of Activism” campaigns, each with a different theme to address gender equity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. ABAAD’s theme for 2016 was “A White Dress Doesn’t Cover the Rape,” which was centralized around a universal visual image—a shocking depiction of a woman in a bloodied white dress—to spread awareness of gender-based violence, and to advocate for the abolition of Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code. Article 522 in effect protects a rapist from prosecution and punishment by stipulating that if the perpetrator of sexual assault marries their victim, “prosecution shall be stopped and in case a decision is rendered, the execution of such decision shall be suspended against the person who was subject to it.” Similar codes exist in other countries, along with more informal “kangaroo courts” that force survivors to marry their rapists.

ABAAD wanted to intervene in this long-standing abuse and miscarriage of justice. One of their aims was to raise awareness of the existence of Article 522 within the Lebanese Penal Code; only 1% of the Lebanese population was aware of the article. In addition to abolishing the article, they wanted to advocate for the right of survivors to refuse marriage to their rapist and to combat the stigmatization and shame that surrounds both female survivors of rape and this decision. ABAAD believes that marrying a survivor of rape to their perpetrator legitimizes and normalizes rape and sexual assault.

Alongside lobbying efforts, ABAAD circulated materials to educate the Lebanese public about their campaign, paired with a striking visual of a bruised young girl in a haphazard white dress made of bandages and a veil. They believed that a shocking image was necessary to convey the severity of the issue, and of the impacts on women in the MENA region. In their campaign, ABAAD utilized traditional media outlets as well as the hashtag #undress522 on social media platforms to disseminate this visual and to spread awareness of the egregious crimes that Article 522 protected. They followed up with the release of a video centering on the same visual imagery of a young girl who is slowly clothed in a white dress made of bandages, streaked with red. The video had only one line of text: “Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code exonerates rapists if they marry their victim.” Their campaign culminated in a silent protest staged near the Lebanese parliamentary building, as participants dressed up as bruised, bloody brides in dresses made of bandages.

These efforts attracted considerable national attention. The video produced by ABAAD went viral on Facebook and has been viewed nearly 3 million times, an astronomical number considering that Lebanon’s population numbers are just under 4.5 million. It also gained attention from Lebanon’s diasporic populations. The performance protest put on by ABAAD attracted international attention from news media outlets, as well as the UN, which elevated the visual of the bloodied wedding dress and bride to an international scale. ABAAD successfully used this visual symbol to captivate international attention and catalyze awareness and action.

Ultimately, this protest within ABAAD’s broader campaign efforts was successful in pushing the Lebanese Parliamentary Administration and Justice Committee to formally abrogate Article 522. However, two exceptions to its effects were maintained: under Article 505 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which concerns “consensual” sexual relationships with minors between the ages of 15 and 18, and Article 518, which concerns non-consensual sexual relationships with minors between the ages of 15 and 18, but with the prior agreement and promise of marriage. For the exceptions to be invoked, the marriage must occur to suspend the judicial proceedings, and additionally, a social worker must report on the psychological status of the women every six months for a period of three years. ABAAD, while raising concerns about these exceptions, considers the abrogation of Article 522 to be a success—one that they will build on continuously in their work to end gender-based violence in the region.

This tactic teaches us the power of a consistent dramatic visual symbol or imagery that can be used to mobilize and raise awareness. Utilizing an easily recognizable and memorable image is a key component of awareness building. For another example of a powerful visual symbol of “the fist” used in Serbia to galvanize support, see Plan B:Using Secondary Protests to Undermine Repression (page 9).

ABAAD is a Lebanon-based civil organization that works to advance the development of gender equality in Lebanon and the broader MENA region through advocacy, direct services, and dialogues.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.