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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Originally Published by AFP

October 28, 2010

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – In an unprecedented event in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, Saudi women on Thursday claimed the world record for forming the largest-ever human pink ribbon at a rally to raise awareness about breast cancer.

More than 4,000 pink-clad women, Saudis and foreigners gathered on a stadium pitch in Jeddah to form the giant ribbon — the global symbol of the fight against breast cancer — to break the previous record of 3,640 set in Germany in 2007.

“We have conquered the world record of Germany with a human chain exceeding 4,000 women,” announced Princess Reema bint Bandar, a leader of the effort.

“We are pleased with this achievement and thank all those who supported us in the campaign for their efforts,” she told the all-female crowd.

The women arrived at the education ministry stadium in the Red Sea city of Jeddah dressed in the ubiquitous all-black, shroud-like Muslim abaya robe which women are compelled to wear in public in the kingdom.

But they then topped their abayas with blush-coloured ponchos and scarves, turning the stadium into sea of pink.

Bowing to the Islamic regime’s strict rules keeping men and women separated, men were not allowed to view the event. A number of princesses present refused to have their pictures taken with their faces exposed.

But there was huge enthusiasm for the rally on the field.

“I came with my sister to find out more about breast cancer,” 25-year-old Hanan Jassim said. “My mother is infected with the disease so we want to receive more information and we support those who are afflicted.”

Housewife Sawsan Abdul Latif, 40, was there with her daughter, a medical student.

“I liked the idea and I wanted to see it happen, particularly as it is a global event held for the first time in the kingdom,” she said.

The turnout, which some said topped 5,000, was far shy of the organisers’ goal of 10,000 women.

Still, it almost certainly set the standard for women’s activism in the conservative Islamic kingdom, although there was no immediate confirmation of a new world record.

Even small rallies are rare in Saudi Arabia, where the government bans protests and restricts public activism.

Women are doubly challenged, because, according to Saudi tradition and its strict form of Islam, they cannot move around without the approval of a male guardian and are not permitted to drive.

Moreover, women have almost no high positions in government to advance their interests.

Only one woman serves as a minister — the deputy minister of education — and none are full members of the consultative Shura council.

The human ribbon attempt was organised by the Riyadh-based Zahra Breast Cancer Association and promoted by the activist Princess Reema, daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

“Let it be known that as of this day, ignorance is no longer an excuse and no woman should be allowed to be left to suffer in silence,” Reema said at the launch of the campaign which culminated in Thursday’s rally.

Breast cancer is the most-diagnosed form of cancer in Saudi Arabia, accounting for 12.4 percent of all cancers and 23.6 percent of cancers among women, according to a study by the Saudi Cancer Registry.

 

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