While it is clear that the Center for Waste Management – Abu Dhabi (CWM) is valiantly fighting an uphill struggle to get the general public to dispose of household trash in a responsible manner, this attempt at an innovative public information campaign is not doing them (or us) any favours. Using comic strips to make unsavoury topics such as pest control and domestic hygiene more palatable is not a bad approach. But cramming cultural and gender stereotypes into six panels of patronising storyline is no way to go about it.
Let’s start by looking at the underlying goals of the CWM. The aim of the campaign is to enlist the help of the public in reducing pests such as insects and rodents, which thrive on incorrectly disposed household waste. To eradicate bad habits in this somewhat delicate area of domestic affairs requires the mobilisation of those in charge of everyday household tasks such as taking out the trash. In the UAE, as in most countries on this planet, that usually still means women. More specifically, wives and female domestic staff.
Now, how does the CWM decide to convey its very important message to key stakeholders, IE the women of the UAE? Of course! Show them a comic strip in which the man of the house solves a ‘mysterious’ insect invasion by obtaining guidance from a wise CWM official on behalf of the women of the house, heroically bestowing upon them a bullet point list explaining how to clean properly. Well done, man of the house!
Why on earth nobody thought of showing the women themselves coming up with solutions is a mystery. If the idea here was to catch the attention of people who might not read an article about the subject, they could have even done a story told from the perspective of a rat or a cockroach, which would have had more impact than showing mundane household scenes and bullet point lists. This would also have removed any danger of human stereotyping AND would have made for a much more vivid, suitably yucky comic strip. Instead, the comic insinuates a few rather unkind assumptions about expat domestic staff and local women.
In the first panel, a swarm of insects descends on a kitchen where a uniformed domestic worker is seen stirring a pot on a stove, which stands next to two large garbage bins, objects of vermin desire. In the second panel, the wife comes in and is shocked by the insect infestation. When asked why there are insects all over the place, the domestic worker responds that the critters are attracted by the cooking smells.
Immediately, two irritating notions transpire: one, the domestic doesn’t see the insect infestation as a problem and gives an excuse when asked about it; two, the wife doesn’t know the most basic facts of domestic hygiene and, rather than taking matters into her own hands, asks her husband to sort things out.
This is how the story goes on:
While there surely are some households in Abu Dhabi where neither the staff nor the employers would know what to do in this sort of situation, it is doubtful there is a large overlap between that group and the readership of daily newspapers, where this ad was placed.*
In other words, this campaign obviously means well, but is rather ill conceived and, depending on your stance on questions of equality and feminism, even rather insulting. On top of that, it is also pretty poorly placed to achieve its goals.
Mad Men and Mad Women of the UAE, you can do better than this!
* I'm not saying that newspaper readers are less likely to suffer from pest infestations, or that locals and non-Western expats don't read newspapers, or that locals and non-Western expats don't know how to keep a house clean. I just suspect that the majority of people who are even a little like the figures in the comic strip (if such people actually exist) probably aren't frequent newspaper readers. Sound patronising to you? To me, too. But keep in mind that readership levels are not very high in this country and many domestic workers simply don't have the time or money to read news publications.