Dana Al-Otaibi and the culture of victim blaming

Dana Al-Otaibi and the culture of victim blaming
As hundreds on social media celebrated the news of the murder of American-Saudi YouTuber Dana Al-Otaibi, Yousra Samir Imran argues that this behaviour feeds into a wider culture of victim-blaming based on women’s life choices, and it must end.
7 min read
11 Aug, 2022
Dana Al-Otaibi was three months pregnant when she was stabbed to death allegedly by her husband, Bryant Tejeda-Castillo. [GETTY]

Another day, and another news story of yet another Arab woman who has been murdered, but this time in North America. At the end of July, 27-year-old American YouTuber and social media influencer Dana Al-Otaibi was stabbed to death by her Marine ex-husband Bryant Tejeda-Castillo on the side of a busy highway in Hawaii in front of dozens of witnesses. She was 13 weeks pregnant with her new partner at the time.

Tejeda-Castillo has been charged with second-degree murder, but the late Al-Otaibi’s mother has been left with questions as to why the military did not protect her daughter and prevent her murder.

During the three years in which she was married to Tejeda-Castillo, Al-Otaibi uploaded numerous videos in which she was crying and describing how he was violent towards her, hitting, punching and pulling her by the hair, but despite Dana officially reporting the abuse and asking for a restraining order, the authorities did not taken action. She had also sent photos of bruise marks on her upper torso to her mother prior to her death, allegedly caused by Tejeda-Castillo.

''But even if Dana Al-Otaibi's values are in stark contrast to mine, and even if she disrespects my religion, it will never justify hers or any woman’s death. The victim-blaming of women in the Arab world is an epidemic with no ending in sight.''

Al-Otaibi claimed she was half-Saudi, however many social media users have said this cannot be confirmed, and a large number of Arab social media users have said she took on the famous Saudi tribal name of Al-Otaibi in order to give them a bad name. Dana was well-known for her Only Fans account on which she posted adult content, as well as her sexually explicit music on YouTube, content that is deemed unacceptable and shameful in Saudi Arabia. Because of this, a large number of social media users reacted to the news of her murder by saying she deserved it.

Their reaction is unsurprising. Whenever an Arab woman lives in a way that is considered immoral or not in line with religion (whether that is Islam, Christianity or any of the minority faith groups), there is this inherent belief that whatever befalls her – domestic violence, rape, injury, or death – is both justified and deserved.

Whenever a woman in an Arab society asks the court for a divorce on the grounds of domestic abuse, it seems the community’s usual response is, “what did she do to provoke him?”

I found a few of Al-Otaibi’s old YouTube videos uncomfortable – in them she mocks Islam; hundreds of comments beneath the videos by users tell the now late Al-Otaibi that divine intervention led her to her end. But even if her values are in stark contrast to mine, and even if she disrespects my religion, it will never justify hers or any woman’s death.

The victim-blaming of women in the Arab world is an epidemic with no ending in sight.

Take the horrific Qatif case of 2006. A young woman and her male friend were kidnapped in Saudi Arabia, and gang-raped by seven men. The court sentenced both victims to six months in jail and 90 lashes for being alone together, hence viewing the victims as criminals.

I was living in the Gulf at the time and remember people’s responses – fellow young women – that she was to blame for going out on her own and getting into the man’s car. Sometimes women are their own worst enemies.

Or take all the thousands of Egyptian women who were sexually harassed, beaten, and raped during the 2011 Arab Spring. Popular opinion in Egypt was that they should not have been present during these protests. However, the uprisings were not a man’s revolution, it was the people’s.

Or there’s the case of British teacher Lauren Patterson who was raped and murdered in 2013 in Doha by a Qatari man who had offered her a ride home. I did not know her personally but a close friend of mine did. The reaction at the time of her murder was the same. “She should not have been at a nightclub. She should not have been drinking. She should not have got into his car.” While her murder made the headlines in Britain, there was barely a whisper of it in the local press.

And just recently, days after Nayera Ashraf’s murder in Egypt, an Egyptian Islamic preacher said that because she had not been wearing the Hijab she had been murdered. “Go ahead, let your hair down and wear tight clothing. [Men] will hunt you down and kill you. Go on – personal freedom,” said Shaikh Mabrouk Attia, “[a] woman should be veiled in order to live.”

Yet Egypt is proof that whether you wear the niqab, abaya and gloves or do not wear the hijab, it makes no difference as 99.3% of Egyptian women have reported that they have experienced sexual harassment – that’s practically all Egyptian women.

In the Arab world, victim-blaming seems to be deeply rooted in culture and the religious beliefs that our actions, if “immoral” and veering away from what is acceptable, have dire consequences.

While I was growing up in the Gulf, our mothers and Islamic Studies teachers would tell us that if we talked to boys – something that was considered to be “haram” or forbidden - we would inevitably end up kidnapped, raped, and even murdered by these “boys” as some sort of indirect divine punishment.

It’s clearly this same belief that has been applied in the case of the murder of Dana Al-Otaibi. But if we are to talk from an Islamic point of view, there’s much in the divine texts to suggest the opposite – that no one has the right to take the life of another, and that whoever kills one person it is as if they have killed the whole of humanity (The Holy Qur’an, 5:32). There is no justification in Islam in taking the life of another person based on the latter’s choice of lifestyle or morals.

The truth is, victim-blaming is an easier recourse than holding those who are responsible accountable – the authorities that fail to protect women, and to implement something as simple as a restraining order, or purposely ignore the few laws that exist to protect women. Not to mention governments that refuse to ratify or make reservations when it comes to international laws designed to protect women, like the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The USA is one of the few countries left that has not ratified CEDAW, and the majority of Arab countries having reservations to certain articles.

The blame is on the governments that severely lack legislation protecting women, that make the course to prosecution for rape near impossible, and that give official pardons to men who murder women. Those leaders in oil-rich countries who have the money to build artificial islands, stadiums, palace-like malls, and skyscrapers that look like they jumped out of Blade Runner 2049, but lack support services to remove women from abusive environments and house them somewhere safe.

It is telling that the few women’s refuges that do exist in Arab countries are little different to female prisons. Until quite recently, in countries like Jordan and Saudi, women who had been subjected to domestic violence, were often put into jail for their own safety. What does it say when after reporting your abuse the authorities in your country treat you like a criminal?

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.