Saudi Arabian ad for breast cancer awareness.

Saudi Arabian ad for breast cancer awareness.

Australia is one of several nations that has successfully increased breast cancer awareness, all with that prolific symbol of a little pink ribbon. You may occasionally see a woman or two in an ad campaign striking some emotional chords to generate awareness, but that’s because, despite relatively low rates of breast cancer in men, it’s a disease that is more obviously linked to females.

Moreover, it’s a campaign that addresses them in their own right, advising them to take ownership of their health. In the context of women’s breast health, getting regular checks are significant to them and their wellbeing.

In Saudi Arabia, however, it’s left, somewhat bafflingly, to shiny, happy men to caution women about breast cancer and the importance of getting mammograms, which, if you think about it, makes as much sense as appointing a male spokesperson for the pill. Guys may well have a vested interest in its effectiveness, but it’s ultimately a woman’s deal.

Cue exhibit A – a very pink poster, and an initiative of the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, which promotes breast cancer prevention but looks like an ad for men’s health. 

Now I’m no marketing expert, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that featuring men, no matter how cheerful they look, wasn’t the best way to go on this one. Given that the target is women, and their wellbeing – and I’m just freewheeling here – maybe, maybe, this one could have been left up to the women themselves.

Or, perhaps in a truly radical move, the campaign could continue to invoke that good old pink ribbon since a woman’s smile is considered too tempting in that part of the world. (Of course, it’s not like guys would ever be exposed to women and their alluring grins, like on the interwebs or something.)

 In all seriousness though, there’s a more disturbing aspect to the campaign message – namely, that men are placed central to a highly sensitive women’s issue. Take, for example, an ad campaign launched last year. The video  (below) talks about the significance of women to society.

 

“A woman is my mother, is my sister, is my daughter, is my wife. I am created from a woman.”

The video then ends with subtitles beseeching women to get checked for breast cancer, because early detection results in 97 per cent of cases being cured. It’s solid advice, but it’s somewhat diluted by this little gem, which precedes the statistics:

“Because you are the foundation, and you are precious to us, we ask you to do early examinations for breast cancer...”

Cringe factor aside, what’s left out is the crazy notion that a woman is actually a human being first, who deserves to exist in her own right and have authority in her own matters of health.

It is, obviously, a fairly limiting and disempowering message. 

The initiative itself is to be commended, given the kingdom’s dismal breast cancer rates. Around 24 per cent of cancer cases among females are the breast cancer kind and, as this 2011 article notes, due to the lax approach to preventative screenings, as many as 70 per cent of women diagnosed are in the advanced stage of the cancer by the time they seek treatment.

But the initiative is also overdue. Mammograms have long been considered taboo in Saudi Arabia and, as documented by blogger ‘American Bedu’, breast cancer is regarded as a “woman’s problem” that ultimately diminishes her eligibility for marriage. 

It’s further proof of the stigma attached to women's bodies. With women long satisfying the figure of temptation, a culture of body shaming prevents them from addressing health issues at the preventative stage.

It extends to the most innocuous of pursuits. A friend of mine, who spent four years in Saudi Arabia, told me anything that involves getting undressed outside of the home is considered “inappropriate”. That means shopping malls are free of change rooms – you have to buy clothing and try it on at home. (Luckily, stores offer a returns policy.) It was only recently that women were permitted to work in lingerie stores when it was evidently concluded that buying underwear from a man can be an awkward experience for women.

Perhaps none of this should come as much of a surprise. Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative nation in which gender segregation is strictly enforced. This is a country in which, without a shred of irony, it was recently concluded that allowing women to drive would lead to the extinction of virgins – clearly an endangered species – and an increase in homosexuality. Like something out of The Onion, it’s hard to tell where the hyperbole begins and where it might come to a smashing halt. If anyone can help me crack the code on that virginity/homosexuality/women-drivers equation though, I’d be grateful.

Meanwhile, women are confronted by religious police for wearing make-up, females are photoshopped out of innocuous ads for flat-pack furniture, and driving a car spearheads a feminist movement and gets you arrested. And, from the department of Stuff You Can’t Make Up, women aren’t permitted to eat ice cream in public (because, according to my sources, ice cream is so good it’s sinful).

Clearly, the brains behind the Ikea blunder, which suggests women don’t use furniture, took inspiration from the breast cancer campaign guru, who’s more worried about the feelings of men than the state of women’s health.  

One only hopes the grapevine in Saudi Arabia keeps women well-informed about the latest innovations in hygiene products. I shudder to imagine where the next men-centric ad campaigns will go otherwise.