SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi women set pink ribbon record

 Staging a massive all-women pink rally to raise awareness of breast cancer is a strong symbol in any country. In Saudia Arabia, it’s a historic feat.  

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Staging a massive all-women pink rally to raise awareness of breast cancer is a strong symbol in any country. In Saudia Arabia, it’s a historic feat.

On October 28, over 3,950 women in Saudi Arabia set a new world record by forming the largest human pink ribbon chain to raise global awareness of the battle against breast cancer.

The rally took place at a stadium owned by the Ministry of Education in the Al-Rawdah neighbourhood of Jeddah. Our Observer explains why the event, organised by the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, means a lot more than a world record to Saudi women.

Post written with France 24 journalist Segolène Malterre.

“Saudi women hardly ever talk about their health problems for fear their husbands will see them as ‘damaged goods’”

Susie, 57, is an American woman who moved to Jeddha with her Saudi husband three years ago. She wrote this post about the pink ribbon rally in her blog, Susie’s Big Adventure.

 

I don't know if the rest of the world actually realizes or appreciates what a seemingly impossible feat this was to achieve in a rigidly religious and male-dominated society like Saudi Arabia, where women are hidden behind black drapes when out in public. Logistically speaking, the odds were against us. Since females are prohibited from driving here in the "Magic Kingdom," what that means is that every single woman who participated in the event - except those who may have been close enough to walk to the site - was driven to the venue by a man. During the event, there were no men allowed inside the stadium.

 

I was told by an event organizer that the management of the stadium had initially refused to open the stadium to women. A call from higher powers quickly corrected that issue and the management was on board. Other male protesters in law enforcement and city government who voiced their objections were also quashed, and their objections turned into offers of assistance and support.

 

'If it weren’t for the major clout behind this event, we would never have been able to pull it off'

 

I also learned that the religious authorities were in a tizzy (no surprise here) over the fact that women would be gathering together en masse. However, at every turn the objectors were overruled. The event's organizers had gone through all the proper channels, followed protocol, received approvals and official documents from every required governmental agency, and had the full support of the government to proceed with this monumental occasion. If it weren't for the major clout backing this event, which was organised by Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan and the Zahra Breast Cancer Association of which she is a founding member, women in Saudi Arabia would likely have never been able to pull it off.

 

We arrived at the stadium shortly after 5pm, when the gates were opened. There was already quite a large crowd of women, with more and more arriving with every passing minute. Once inside the gate, there was a table where we had to obtain ticket stubs in order to then go to another table to get our pink hooded ponchos which were provided free of charge to all attendees. There were also a variety of booths for sponsors, including Zahra Breast Cancer Association, Al Bidayah Breastfeeding Resource and Women's Awareness Center, and Avon.

'Women had never been allowed to attend any events in the stadium'

For weeks beforehand, the old stadium was readied for the event. The bathrooms were renovated and the hole-in-the-ground toilets were replaced with regular seated toilets. I'm guessing that there are only men's toilets at the facility since women had historically never been allowed to attend any events held there before this because of this society's strict gender segregation policies. The grassy field was watered and tended to and was perfectly manicured. I can't recall ever seeing that much grass in one place here in Saudi Arabia since I've been here! The VIP section in the center was furnished with nice padded chairs for special guests (including me!), and there were beautiful large throne-like chairs where the princesses in attendance were seated.

 

Estimates suggest a total of about 6000 women attended. However some were unable to stay the entire time due to transport issues. The crowd was made up of not just Saudi women, but included expats from many countries around the world including the USA, England, Europe, and many Asian and African countries. I met young women from at least two local international schools who were transported there by bus. I also met women who had flown in from Riyadh just for this event, and others who had driven from Mecca and Taif. Even in the sweltering heat and in the midst of only females, some of the women who came still felt compelled to wear their face veils because of all the cameras around.

 

'Saudi women are more likely to wait until it’s too late to see a doctor'

Breast cancer continues to be a major health problem for women in Saudi Arabia due to several contributing factors. Saudi women are more likely to wait to see a doctor until it's too late and the cancer is already in advanced stages. Saudi women are less prone to be assertive about their own health issues. They are discouraged from asking questions, from reading about their disease and treatments, or from doing their own research. Saudi women have the legal standing of children and can be denied healthcare by their legal guardians, usually their fathers or husbands. Saudi women always live with the fear that their husbands will view them as 'damaged goods' and that the man may either divorce them in their time of need or take on a second wife. And then there is always the perceived embarassing nature and stigma of the disease itself.

 

This was an historic achievement in so many ways for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.I think it shows that Saudi Arabia wants to be an active and integral part of the modern global community. I also feel that it indicates that Saudi Arabia doesn't want to be perceived as that strange and oppressive country that many people around the world fear or criticize because it has always been such a mystery. I think this event also shows that the royal family and many people of Saudi Arabia want the country to progress and are not afraid of change if it's for the good of the country. I hope I'm right!

 

All photos by Susie, originally posted on her blog. Video posted on YouTube by Didamoona.