This year, history will be made as 10,000 Saudi women unite in the fight against breast cancer under the umbrella of 10KSA’s awareness initiative, forming the world’s largest human pink ribbon. Fatima Batook is just one of the many heeding the rallying cry of HH Princess Reema bint Bandar Bin Sultan Al Saud.
'Can’t' is a word all too often associated with the women of Saudi Arabia, with international media and opinion tending to focus on the limitations on women in the Kingdom above all else. This year, however, that’s set to change. Under the guidance of Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the 10KSA breast cancer event will see 10,000 women from the Kingdom come together to raise awareness for the cause. “10KSA is led by women and for women. We don’t often hear successful stories of women pushing the envelope in our country,” says Princess Reema. “Women around the world are navigating their roles in their respective societies. We come from a more conservative perspective but that does not mean we are not active. 10KSA is a great example of this.”
The 10KSA programme began in 2010, when Princess Reema joined forces with Dr Modi Batterjee to organise “a successful world record gathering of 3,500 women to create a pink ribbon in support of breast cancer awareness.” Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death for Saudi women aged between 20-59, which is what makes initiatives such as 10KSA, and organisations like the Zahra Breast Cancer Association (ZBCA), all the more vital. “There was a period in my life where family and friends were being affected by breast cancer or knew someone who was. Unfortunately I lost a dear friend and shortly after, with my mother’s encouragement, I became a founding member of ZBCA, which is the beneficiary of donated funds from 10KSA,” Princess Reema explains.
Princess Reema has been a face on the frontline of the fight against breast cancer for many years. Back in 2012, she led a group of 10 women from Saudi Arabia to the base camp of Mount Everest, in order to raise awareness about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, and the link between exercise and breast cancer. Noura Bouzo, 30, the founder of Oasis Magazine, was one of the women on the trip. “It was an amazing journey for all of us,” she tells Bazaar. “Even though she was afraid of heights, Princess Reema led the group and we made it.” Lina Al Maeena, the 38-year-old founder of Jeddah United, a Saudi-based company aimed at promoting health and sports among youth, was another participant in the climb. “As someone in the sports field, I believe that this step that was taken to explain the importance of sport and exercise on health levels was essential.”
The aim of the gathering this December, in addition to breaking a world record with the number of women present, is to remove the taboo surrounding check-ups. On the day, there will be medical facilities on-site for women to have a mammogram, as well as educational talks alongside spa and fitness activities. “In its latest iteration, 10KSA has gone beyond breast cancer to promote holistic health and preventative measures to combat the disease,” explains Princess Reema. “We want the women who attend to take away a message of total and overall health, as the latter is the foundation for a productive and healthy society. At present time, we are losing our women as they are being diagnosed at later stages. We need to reverse this alarming trend. We hope to create a culture where early detection and screening becomes the norm.” She adds, “We hope to make early detection screenings and regular check-ups as palatable and commonplace as possible for Saudi women. Regular check-ups should be regarded as a routine that is just as important as women taking care of their external appearance. Getting a regular check-up should carry the same weight as females place on hair and nail appointments.” Dana AlDraye, 24, the founder of WhyBullyGCC, believes that information is key to helping this to happen. “I truly believe that to solve a problem, you need to understand it. Campaigns like 10KSA are a call to action for every woman to stand up and fight breast cancer. We as women are the ones suffering and we are the ones who have what it takes to put an end to it.”
The current lack of engagement with health professionals could be attributed to a number of things: lack of knowledge, proximity to wellness facilities and also cultural sensitivities, particularly given that the word ‘breast’ isn’t frequently bandied about in the vernacular. Princess Reema believes it also has to do with the word cancer. “The word ‘breast’ poses an issue for some women, however, in my opinion, the biggest factor is the word cancer. It conjures immediate fear paralysis. So the combination of the two – breast cancer – is a dangerous mix.”
For fashion designer Reem Al Kanhal, 31, it also comes down to perception. “We always hear about breast cancer and think that it would never happen to us, but that’s simply not true. Educated women, including myself, should know better and set an example for her sister, friends, mother and even the community. It’s our collective responsibility to remind each other to make and attend these appointments.”
Logistically, this event has proven to be a challenge for Princess Reema and her team, due to the fact that it’s women-only. “The event is being held at Princess Noura University, which is women’s-only, so all the support services for it and on the day itself, need to come from women.
This means that all partner organisations, such as security and food vendors, can only supply female staff. This is not an easy task given that most of these jobs and skill sets in Saudi are currently held by men.” Noura points out that they’ve found support for the cause in an unexpected place. “10KSA has highlighted all the male support we have in the community. Saudi men have been publicly supporting the campaign, which has helped spread the word and show the important role that women play in society.”
This year’s event was held last night, with funds raised from the event will going to support the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, of which Princess Reema is a founding board member. It was a historic day for the women of Saudi Arabia given that the Kingdom’s municipal elections also took place on that date; the first in which Saudi women have been able to run for office and vote. “This is the biggest indication of progress in the region,” Princess Reema explains. “While change is slow, our steady progress is a win-win for Saudi women as the younger generation are primed to become future leaders in all realms of society.”
The recent inclusion of women in the government sector has given the female population of Saudi a renewed sense of hope, especially in light of the difficulties many of them have faced entering the workforce in the past. For Lina, it’s a step in the right direction. “I went through societal resistance and opposition, and had to navigate unclear laws around the female sports industry and women in business generally when I started out,” she explains. “The Kingdom has come a long way in its support of women since then. I think a lot of that credit goes to His Royal Highness, the late King Abdullah, who allowed women into the Shura Council, the highest consultative council in the country.”
Among the ambassadors and Princess Reema herself, there’s a palpable sense of purpose. These women want the world to know what they’re capable of, regardless of gender and geographical location. Dana says, “We as women define ourselves. The more we show our intelligence, and strength, and the more we beat men at ‘their own game’, the better we pave our road towards an improved perception of Saudi women. In order to fight misconceptions we need to work hard and towards something, showing the world we are passionate, hardworking and intellectual women.” Fatima Batook, the 31-year-old founder of Tema Fitness, agrees, adding, “Women in Saudi Arabia are inspirational because they move mountains to achieve their dreams. Women are resilient in the Kingdom and can achieve anything they put their minds to.”
For more information visit 10KSA.com. This article first appeared in the October issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.