The Saudi Sovereign and the Breast

This post was originally published at the interrogations of shamshouma.

In the last few weeks, The Saudi TV channel MBC has been broadcasting an ad of a Saudi national breast cancer campaign, organized by Zahra Breast Cancer Association. Officially launched on October 10th, the national campaign is led by Princess Hessah Bint Trad Al-shaalan (the Honorary president of the Zahra Breast Cancer Association and wife of Kind Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz) and princess Rima Bint Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, aka Abdullah’ s daughter.

The campaign made a fascinating ad that quotes an interview (how recent it is I am not quite sure) by King Abdullah talking about the importance of women in Saudi society. If you have missed this absolutely amazing and ironic ad, you can watch it here: http://www.ckfu.org/vb/t235906.html

Basically, the advertisement starts with King Abdullah’s definition of what a woman is: “a woman is my mother, is my sister, is my daughter, is my wife. I am created from a woman” (This last sentence made me nauseous every time I heard it on TV. There was something about it that was just so wrong and yucky) then the ad shifts to the campaign’s slogan and main purpose: “because you are the foundation, and your life is precious to us, we beg you to do the preventive test for breast cancer”

The timing for this national campaign should first be noted. At the end of September, after a series of social movements and protests led by Saudi women to demand their basic social and individual rights, especially the campaign for driving in Saudi Arabia, king Abdullah announces a series of reforms for women, especially the right to vote and standing for elections , which will  be effective in 2015.

A quick reading of the reforms reveal the attempt of the Saudi sovereign to include women in the political scene, thereby allowing a basic representation of women, symbolized in the right to vote and to be voted for, without providing any form of social and everyday reform that is more urgent and immediate, like the right to drive a car etc.

This is why this campaign for breast cancer prevention is so fascinating. While meant to show the King’s admiration and appreciation of Saudi women’s role in society, what the ad produces is obviously a patriarchal representation of women, mixed with a call for a new and “modern” way  for them to regulate their bodies and breasts.

King Abdullah’s definition of a woman is always in relation to himself. He, the king, wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for women. This is not a dialectical relationship. Woman + king Abdullah =  nothing productive and transformative. In all of his statements, King Abdullah simply appropriates the woman into himself, as his. Women do not and cannot stand by themselves as subjects but are always in relation to the sovereign/man.

That’s the obvious part. King Abdullah, at the end of his life, is awkwardly trying to talk to Saudi women through a cancer breast prevention campaign and fails miserably at it. But what is fascinating about this is the royal family’s choice of venue from which the king spoke to his female subjects. In The History of Sexuality (1978), Michel Foucault traces the shift in “power” from an authoritarian sovereign power that governs people by deciding who lives and who dies, where subjects sacrifice their lives for the sake of the sovereign, to a modern power over life, a  modern power that fosters life “and disallows it to the point of death”. Foucault terms this new form of power “biopower”, an institutional form of regulation and control that is much more productive and hegemonic than the former oppressive “do what I tell you to or I will kill you” power.

Biopower can be defined as a technology of power and a way to regulate and control populations’ bodies and health by modern states, through numerous technologies and techniques. This new form of power relies on subjects to regulate themselves without any need for an oppressive or visible order. Modern institutions of knowledge like psychology, psychoanalysis and medicine, center on the body and regulate it not authoritatively but through propagating a series of “healthy and normal” behaviors that people are expected to do on their own and for their own health. Behaviors like brushing teeth, putting on a seatbelt and taking annual check ups for cancer prevention become taken for granted habits and a form of anatomo-politics that shift the role of regulation and control from the sovereign to the individual herself.

What I think is fascinating about the Saudi ad for breast cancer prevention is exactly this funny mixture of sovereign power and biopower that the ad reveals. The king wants to both cover the breast entirely and unveil it medically. Usually, ads that try to convince women to get checked up for cancer attempt to focus on the efficiency of these tests in rescuing women and keeping them alive. Messages like “if you test yourself once a year, you will protect your health and live longer” work because no one can refuse to be against her own health and therefore will self-regulate her own body.

However, what happens in this ad quite different. The message portrayed in the ad can be decoded somewhat like that: “please get tested for Cancer because your life is precious to us”. This rather weird form of biopolitics is revealed by trying to convince Saudi women to self-regulate because their bodies are important for the sovereign. While statistics about the efficiency of these tests for cancer prevention are mentioned at the end, the main character in the ad is the king himself, telling his women subjects that their bodies and health are of direct importance to him.

This interesting form of “power mixing” symbolizes the state of the art of Saudi politics today. It is not a coincidence that the king (his wife and his daughter) chose a breast cancer prevention campaign to speak to Saudi women subjects. His message portrays a sense of paternalistic care for Saudi women’s healthy breasts on one hand, and a re-establishment of his role as a sovereign who oppresses and controls every single inch and dimension in their bodies on the other.

  • http://amuslimahwrites.wordpress.com Sarah F.

    As someone who spent a considerable amount of time in Saudi Arabia, I love your examination of this issue. It’s so important to unravel what seem like well-intentioned means to empower women like health awareness campaigns. Thanks so much.

  • Muhammad Amreeki

    I think you have read too much into the ad. First, I agree with your assessment about the patriarchal representation of women, but you underestimate the affection Saudis, especially Saudi women, have for their king. Your argument that King Abdullah “simply appropriates the woman into himself” and defines “a woman is always in relation to himself” is nonsense. If there ever was a Saudi king who was not “all about me” it’s King Abdullah who has consistently issued royal decrees ensuring more rights for women than other Saudi king. He also is consistent in his interviews that Saudi women are entitled to more rights. Yes, he doesn’t move fast enough for Western tastes in asserting those rights, but he’s certainly not creepy as you imply, or viewed as such by Saudis.

    At the end of the day, this is an ad about breast cancer prevention and awareness. And that is the issue here. Whenever Saudis move closer to breaking taboos and granting more rights for women, inevitably the Western media — forever flailing Saudis to join the 21st century — trash that progress. When Saudi women won the right to vote, Western media didn’t applaud King Abdullah, but smirked that it should have happened 100 years ago, as if it didn’t take the United States nearly 145 years to grant women those rights.

  • chris

    “Your argument that King Abdullah “simply appropriates the woman into himself” and defines “a woman is always in relation to himself” is nonsense.”

    Mohammed, you misunderstand this author’s argument. S/he is referring to the role of a woman defined as “my mother, my daughter, my wife”. All the roles of the woman are enumerated with “my”, appropriating the woman and her many facets in all of these facets. At least this is how I understand both the ad and this analysis of the advertisement. This is not about what the King may or may not have done. The power of these words, the definitional constructs and understandings they reveal, stand on their own in any public saying, and can be analyzed as such without previous knowledge of the person. In fact understanding of underlying ideologies are far better done without previous knowledge or preconception of how good or bad the speaker or issuer is.


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