Shutting Down Misconceptions about Clothing & Culture’s Effect on Breast Cancer

Earlier this month, Ms. Magazine ran an article that looked at breast cancer stigma in Saudi Arabia.  The article provides breast cancer statistics in Saudi Arabia (without citation or link), breast cancer statistics in the United States, and American expat Carol Fleming’s experience with breast cancer in Saudi Arabia. Fleming suggests that promoting pink products for breast cancer awareness might help to curb the stigma associated with the illness in Saudi Arabia.  An nameless image of a pink burqa-clad woman without context greets readers at the site, despite the fact that the burqa is worn in Afghanistan.

A pink burqa, Ms. Magazine? Really?

Over at Gender Across Borders, Ashley Lauren responds to the Ms. Magazine article with the following:

The fact is that, in a country where women wear burqas in public, there is a lot of shame that surrounds the female body.  This can become problematic when it comes to breast cancer screening, as many medical technicians and doctors in the country are men.  For a woman to bare her breasts in front of a man in Saudi Arabia is something that is still seen as taboo.

Deciding who to “bare one’s breasts” to or whether your OB-GYN is a man or woman is a highly personal decision that should be made based on one’s individual comfort level—making assumptions about a woman’s comfort level based on whether or not they wear a burqa is ridiculously reductive. The way the last sentence of Lauren’s paragraph is written is overly sensational: isn’t it taboo to bare your breasts in front of just any man anywhere? Obviously, she means in instances for one’s health and well-being, but why didn’t she include that in her sentence?

Lauren promotes the idea that hijab/niqab/burqa-wearing woman—related distinctly to a Muslim woman’s identity—is associated with shame, and thus attributes lack of breast cancer screening and awareness as the norm among these women, without considering larger contextual and cultural factors that affect a woman’s understanding of preventative health measures.

Not one but two feminist websites failed at this story. I was disappointed to see that neither article included interviews with Muslim or Saudi Arabian women and their personal experiences with breast cancer. Lots of Muslim women and non-Muslim women, not only in Saudi Arabia but around the world, would be hesitant to have male practitioners examine them, for a variety of reasons—just like plenty of Muslim and non-Muslim women are okay with male providers. Pointing to shame surrounding the female body as a reason why Muslim women wouldn’t want to be examined by a doctor ignores that this isn’t something that’s unique to Muslim women.

We often forget that breast cancer is not the leading cause of death for women in the United States—heart disease is.  And that African-American women in the United States have lower incidences of breast cancer than white women, yet are more likely than white women to die from the illness.  Or that when considering the leading causes of disease in women around the world, breast cancer is not even among the top 10 causes of death, and only becomes so in middle and high-income countries:

“10 Leading Causes of Death in Females by Income Group, 2004” WHO

While it is true that Muslim women from many ethnic backgrounds do not participate in screening efforts (at least in the United States, according to this link ), the reasons for why they do not do so are complex and should be considered relative to their overall health risk, cultural understanding of health and illness, and personal experience with their healthcare systems and providers.

From my own anecdotal evidence, Muslim and non-Muslim women I have spoken with—both hijab-wearing and non-hijab wearing alike—discussed their oftentimes horrendous, awkward experience with reproductive healthcare providers—both male and female—who come across as distant and oblivious to different cultural understandings of health and preventative measures.

What kind of impact might bad experiences with providers have on women who are already disenfranchised from partaking in preventative health measures?  How do cultural understandings of health and illness influence whether one seeks preventative health measures at all?  These nuanced questions are lost in the reduction of women’s wellbeing to how their burqa-wearing prevents them from seeking preventative care.

Stigma associated with illnesses, especially related to reproductive health, exists and is serious and needs to be addressed, but reducing it to “burqa/niqab/hijab wearing women are shameful of seeing male providers and that’s why they don’t get screened” narrative is simplistic and harmful to promoting and advancing women’s health and wellbeing.

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  • Liz

    I would agree that the framing is off- women from many different backgrounds find it difficult to comply with screening regimes for a host of reasons. My Catholic mother nearly waited too long to go in for a mamogram because of modesty/discomfort/shame issues. These issues have little to do with a burka and vice versa (although it annoys me to no end when burqa is substituted for abaya/hijab/niqab, because it’s all the same, no?).

    That being said, I would not be too quick to dismiss pink covering. Check out this account of a pink hijab rally/aerial photograph that sounds off the hook:

  • Jihad Punk XXX

    I’m really, really tired of ignorant people slumping “burqa” with the abaya, niqab, jelbab, and other diverse Islamic clothings, for women in Saudi Arabia (or Iran, Pakistan, or any other “evil” countries for instance).

    Kudos to MMW for another excellent, informative, analytical report on the mainstream media’s ignorant, inaccurate reporting on Muslim women and Saudi Arabia.

  • Kate

    I don’t particularly enjoy showing my more private areas to doctors, female or otherwise, and that has nothing to do with religion. The things this article cites as particular to Saudi women are true of many women worldwide. Any women can be ashamed or embarrassed of her body; I think the West has done a pretty good job of perpetuating women’s insecurities about their bodies.

    What woman who is faced with the possibility of masectomy or surgery doesn’t worry that her spouse or potential spouse will no longer see her as a sexual being? How is that worry exclusive to Saudi women? If anything, knowing that modest dress draws focus away from the body might lead to a “covered” woman being more aware that a woman is not her body. Of course, I can’t make that claim. I am just speculating.

    It’s good that women are being made aware of the importance of preventative medicine, but all the focus on breast cancer gets to me considering the prevalence of heart disease. Really, save hearts and boobs!

  • Sadie

    I came to this page after someone kindly linked to my blog in an earlier comment and I started seeing hits on an old post about breast cancer! Reading through the discussion, I want to mention an amazing woman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia who I’ve come to know through my work. She runs a breast cancer center here and is a five-year survivor of the disease. Earlier this month she teamed with Komen for the Cure to put on a wonderful international conference on breast cancer. The statistics seem to indicate that women’s cancers are indeed a huge problem in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. It is true that women in this region are afflicted younger than women in the U.S. and that often the diagnoses are at a much more advanced stage. This is why widespread and consistent screening is so important.

    Dr. Samia Al-Amoudi has been part of a successful education and awareness campaign here in KSA, and breast cancer is widely acknowledged and increasingly understood. There are women-only centers for screening and mammograms with all-female medical and counseling staffs. Women can find free screening and radiography clinics if money is a factor. I’ve only been here a year, but I imagine that things have improved even since 2008 and Carol Fleming’s experience here.

    This is a fascinating conversation, and I offer a recent interview with Dr. Al-Amoudi as additional commentary:

    One other point – Ms. Magazine incorrectly cited Riyadh as the venue for last October’s record-breaking human pink ribbon; it was in Jeddah.

  • Melinda

    Great critique!

  • hairdressers soho

    Really appreciating MMW’s research and analytic works on the mainstream media’s constant ignorance & inadequate, wrong reporting on Muslim women and Saudi Arabia.

    Still on our society, it’s very difficult and challenging as well as shameful step for any woman to disclose her private part of body to any doctor (either male or female) for any kind of treatment as women are born to protect their privacy and they are proud of it. We have several instances scattered on our society and it’s very common factor as well.

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  • Azra

    Thanks so much for your comments, everyone! I think it’s clear that going in to see a provider for reproductive health concerns is often a private, personal, and at times highly awkward experience for all women, not only Muslim women. By sharing our stories as women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, we can help to address the stigma associated with the disease and dispel stereotypic narratives. Thank you for sharing your personal stories.

    @Sadie: Thanks for letting us know about the work of Dr. Al-Amoudi–it is inspiring to see women providers working towards raising awareness on preventative measures for women around the world that is culturally relevant.