Lebanese superstar Elissa’s most recent music video is also her most serious: “Ya Merayti” (“My Mirror”) features Elissa as a domestic abuse survivor. Shunning the romantic lovey-dovey storylines popular with Arab music videos the clip, shot on location in Serbia, brings to light a problem that is all too familiar for plenty of Arab women, yet, much like elsewhere in the world, is grossly underreported.
In the Middle East, however, domestic violence is not only underreported, it is also considered somewhat normal. Very few governments in the region contain laws against domestic violence; spousal rape is another issue entirely which has hardly any litigation against it. Finding a charity or non-profit organization that deals with survivors of domestic violence, as well as rape and sexual assault, is next to impossible, at least online anyways. Lebanon is one of the few countries which has visible advocacy against DV: not only has the country taken steps to outlaw domestic violence, it also has several active organizations addressing the issue such as KAFA (“Enough”). Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain have also seen progress in dealing with DV; in May, a landmark court case in Turkey held the former Interior Minister guilty of murdering his wife.
Like women elsewhere in the world, Arab wives don’t report violence at the hands of their husband’s because they are afraid of their spouse; of going to the police; and of what their families and communities are going to say. The shame of reporting such an act would bring great embarrassment to their families.
Many women have no choice but to stay silent for economic reasons: an unskilled housewife with several children cannot easily find a job in a rural town in Egypt or Yemen if she divorces her husband. Divorce itself is often an unthinkable option in itself among communities where divorce is uncommon. A “good wife,” generally speaking, is supposed to serve her husband without questioning his authority or talking back; she is to be seen and not heard.
Yet Elissa’s video is challenging taboos and cultural norms by bringing the issue of domestic violence into the spotlight. And what a reception it has been! The clip, published on May 14th, garnered over 1.5 million views on YouTube in less than a week. Critical reception has been positive, with many applauding Elissa’s work in spotlighting this pressing issue; even her fellow celebs (and competition), such as singer Maya Diab (who has vigorously promoted the song) have lauded Ya Merayti.
The video is well executed, serious without being overdramatic or cheesy (which, given that it is an Arab music video, it easily could have been). Sure, Elissa looks glamorous (a given for any music video, no matter what the subject matter is); sure, she is a woman of privilege, i.e. she’s not living in a tiny house in a rural village frantically running from one chore to the next while her husband farms. But I kind of like that she portrays a middle-class woman, rather than a stereotypically poor woman: it illustrates the point that domestic abuse occurs in all types of families, not just those who are poor and uneducated.
I do, however, question why she chose to have a sort of retro, 1950s-ish theme, as though DV is a thing of the past, when it most certainly isn’t. Again, housewives are not the only women who experience DV: as the Saudi TV journalist Rania Al-Baz sadly proved, even prolific anchorwomen can be abused by their husbands. For those of you who might not have heard Rania’s story, she was one of the few women news anchors on Saudi TV whose husband, Saudi singer Mohammed Fallata, beat her continuously. In 2004, after he beat her so badly that he thought she was dead, Rania decided to post the photos of her smashed face for the world to see, in the process smashing the taboo that domestic violence could not be talked about, because it was not supposed to exist.
We see Elissa’s character heading into a beauty shop to get concealer for the huge bruises on her face, hiding her eyes with a dark pair of sunglasses when she exits onto the street. She suffers in silence as she serves her husband breakfast, where he is irritable and grumpy. He catches her innocently talking to a male passerby on the street who is kind to her. The abuse scene, where he slaps her several times in the face, leaving her laying on the floor bruised, ends with him slumped and seeming to beg for forgiveness, an all-too-common act among abusers.
At the end of the video, we see Elissa’s character as a successful author who’s written a book about her life story. She’s shown with her children, now older; in fact, the children are Elissa’s real-life daughter and son! The story of Saudi Arabia’s Rania Al-Baz also ended in a similar fashion: after an extensive recovery (Rania’s face only bears slight scars from being broken in 13 places) she not only divorced Fallata, she also managed to gain custody of their two children, which is completely unheard of in Saudi Arabia. Like Elissa’s character, Rania also has written a book about her life.
“My book is about a women who has suffered. Maybe this woman is watching today; she should know that this isn’t the end. Break your silence, not your reflection in the mirror,” her character says at the end. It’s a great message of hope for women who are suffering domestic violence in silence, wondering if the pain and hurt will ever end. Rather than blame themselves and beat themselves up for their spouse’s abuse, Elissa reminds them to be courageous and write a different ending to their story.