Friday, October 29, 2010
Pink Ribbon Earns KSA Place in History
Women in Saudi Arabia made history last night, shattering the existing Guinness Book of World Records in the formation of the largest human pink ribbon chain emphasizing global awareness in the battle against breast cancer.
I don't know if the rest of the world actually realizes or appreciates what a seemingly impossible feat this really was to achieve in such a deeply cultured, strictly religious, and male-dominated society like Saudi Arabia where women are hidden behind black drapes when out in public. KSA has a reputation for being known as a place where women should not be seen or heard from, where women must have a legal male guardian all their lives, and where the rights of women are seen by the rest of the world as being limited, antiquated, and oppressed.
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.
Organizing and pulling off a stunt like this was a daunting task in a country where mass gatherings are discouraged and where men and women mingling together in public places is strictly forbidden. There were no men allowed inside the Ministry of Education Sports Stadium, which had never before been used to host an event for women. In fact I was told by an event organizer that the management of the stadium had initially refused to open the stadium for 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.
I also learned that the religious authorities were in a tizzy (no surprise here) over the fact that women would be gathering together like this 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. In fact, if it weren't for the major clout backing this event, women in Saudi Arabia would likely have never been able to pull it off. The clout I'm speaking of responsible for the conception and implementation of this ground-breaking event was Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan and the Zahra Breast Cancer Association of which she is a founding member.
I had the honor and privilege of meeting Princess Reema at the event last night and was taken aback when she thanked me for the post I had written announcing this event and told me she reads my blog! I awkwardly apologized for sometimes complaining about things here in KSA and lamely joked with her that there wasn't much else for me to do here. She was very gracious, charming and regal, while at the same time being so very normal and approachable - exactly the way I imagine a princess should be.
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. Because of the enormous crowd of women, this process took at least half an hour. 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. Free bottled water was also available.
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.
The daytime temperature had reached an irritable and stifling 100F (37C) and the humidity was a muggy 70%. Needless to say, that stadium was packed with a lot of uncomfortable sweaty women who were anxious and excited to come together for a common cause despite the weather conditions. Every single woman had to be counted by the Guinness representative before she was allowed to do the Avon Walk for the Cure on the track around the grassy field, which had been carefully marked into the pattern shaped into the large breast cancer awareness ribbon. I was part of the first group of 100 to be counted and to begin the journey around the track. As we passed the grandstands where thousands of women were seated, waiting for their turns to be counted, the women began cheering and waving and singing the Saudi national anthem. Excitement was in the air - it was phenomenal and very uplifting.
Estimates were that there were about 6000 women total in attendance, however some were unable to stay the entire time due to transportation 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 tranported there by the busfuls. 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.
There were also hundreds of volunteers who assisted in so many ways to make the event a success. It took well over an hour for the ribbon formation to take shape and be filled in. Those of us who were first on the field began to sit on the grass. We were already all hot, sticky, and sweaty anyway, so it wasn't like we were concerned about getting a little grass, insects, or dirt on us at that point! And actually sitting on the grass made me cool down a little bit. Slowly the sea of women dressed in pink ponchos united for a cause became the symbol for Breast Cancer Awareness. The exact official count has not yet been released by Guinness, however it is clear that Saudi Arabia exceeded the German record of 3640 participants set in 2007.
The heat, the humidity, the crowds, the pushing, the waiting, the standing, the discomfort, the sweating - was it all worth it? YES!!!
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!
At any rate, I am proud to say that I was there; I was part of it.
Arab News article "Saudi Pink Ribbon Breaks Guinness Record."
Saudi Gazette article "Kingdom Breaks World Record."
Click here for the Guinness Website article and awesome photos about another breast cancer awareness record that was broken on October 1st.