Saudi model vs Saudi activist: The $5m legal battle brewing in Manhattan
From afar, it could look like an online spat between two Saudi women that spiralled out of control.
But a $5m lawsuit on behalf of Rawan Abdullah Abuzaid, a Saudi influencer and model known as Model Roz, against US-based Saudi activist and photographer Danah al-Mayouf is a deeper struggle for both.
The complaint, filed in Manhattan’s Supreme Court in August, alleges that Mayouf has maliciously defamed Abuzaid and lost her modelling gigs worth $1m. Her lawyer says she simply wants to get on with her dream of being a model.
Mayouf, a critic of the Saudi government who left the kingdom in 2012, however, says she has been exposing hypocrisy and standing up for Saudis who can’t speak out safely. She has concerns that the Saudi government is behind the multi-million dollar suit.
Mayouf has until 7 December to respond to Abuzaid’s complaint, after which the case will move into litigation.
She said, she said
According to the complaint, problems started when Mayouf identified Abuzaid on social media as “an example of someone who has escaped a repressive past in Saudi Arabia in order to achieve success in the US”.
After Abuzaid disputed Mayouf’s comments online about why she left the kingdom, the complaint says that the activist targeted the model with “a campaign of personal attacks” including calling her homophobic and racist, and was out to "destroy her hard-earned career" because Abuzaid refused to join her anti-Saudi social media campaign.
'I have the right to protest. This is America. This is not Saudi Arabia anymore'
- Danah al-Mayouf, Saudi activist and photographer
But Mayouf says she didn't care how and why Abuzaid had come to the US. Rather, Mayouf says, she only raised questions publicly about how Abuzaid had left the kingdom after she was approached by Saudis who were concerned about homophobic and racist comments they said the model had previously made online, and started she speaking out against those.
In one instance, Mayouf said she was alarmed to see Abuzaid posing with gay celebrities. Mayouf says that Abuzaid had previously posted a video in Arabic on Snapchat saying gay people are “sick and need treatment”.
The discrepancy, Mayouf said, upset gay Saudis with whom Mayouf was in touch, who couldn’t speak out publicly for fear of retribution and were sharing the videos with her.
“So I faced her on Twitter," Mayouf said. "Why would you say something? Can you please apologise?
“I’m not saying I’m an angel. I myself used to be racist and homophobic because that’s what we were taught in Saudi Arabia growing up. We don’t know better. So maybe you came here [to the US] and you changed. So just apologise. You have a lot of young people following you.”
But, Mayouf said, Abuzaid blocked her instead of apologising or explaining. Mayouf then decided to create an Instagram account to focus on what she says is hypocrisy among Arab influencers and celebrities, including the model.
“I did not lie. I have the videos. I have the right to protest. This is America. This is not Saudi Arabia anymore,” Mayouf said.
But Michael Weinstein, Abuzaid’s lawyer, said he and Abuzaid “vehemently disagree” that the model has posted homophobic or racist messages on social media, in English or in Arabic.
He said he didn’t know specifically what video Mayouf was referring to, but understood there was one video which he said had been cut in a way that did not give its full context and was being misrepresented.
“My client has posted thousands and thousands of posts over the course of her career and, if you know anything about her and who her friends are, you would know that her entire persona is about promoting love and acceptance, not hate and exclusion,” Weinstein said.
Mayouf, according to the complaint, has also “intentionally and maliciously” interfered with brands that Abuzaid has had “economic opportunities” with including Maybelline, Victoria’s Secret and Guess.
“Many have ceased or diminished their relationship with Model Roz as a result of the defendant’s aggressive and repeated attacks,” the complaint says.
Mayouf says that she was simply exercising her rights. “I have the right to protest. I was not doing anything illegal. All I did was make those brands aware what was going on.
“I came here because I wanted my freedom and my freedom of speech. If I lose it here, then whatever I fought for is nothing.”
Free speech, and defamation
Mayouf has previously said she has been offered lucrative jobs in Saudi Arabia if she stopped criticising the government, something she also confirmed to MEE.
Her social media accounts, like many activists critical of the Saudi government, have been under regular attack.
Now faced with a potential $5m payout, Mayouf says she’s been left with the sense that there is an orchestrated campaign against her because she has raised inconvenient questions.
'In America, yes, we have free speech, but we also have laws against defamation'
- Michael Weinstein, Model Roz's lawyer
When MEE asked if the Saudi government was paying him to represent Abuzaid, Weinstein said: "I don’t know anybody in the Saudi government. I’ve never been to Saudi Arabia."
Unsurprisingly, he sees the situation quite differently from Mayouf: “In America, yes, we have free speech, but we also have laws against defamation and you can’t just say any false thing you want.
“The fact of the matter is Danah is making false statements of fact. That is what defamation is… it’s clear she has some issue with my client that has nothing to with being racist, homophobic or a prostitute, and she is out to get my client.”
Mayouf, however, says what she has done has nothing to do with jealously or malice, and wonders why she is the only social media user whom Abuzaid is suing when she says she is not alone in raising questions online.
“Hypocrisy is something that upsets me. I don’t like it,” she said.
“I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. If you are lying or a hypocrite, I’m going to expose it, put it out there if I have evidence. I’m not just going to stop talking. I’m going to talk about human rights. I’ll keep speaking up.”