Pinkwashing and the Middle East

By Samantha King

When I began researching pink ribbon culture sixteen years ago, I understood that the scope of my project had the potential to grow beyond its initial focus on the United States. What I did not imagine was that my efforts to follow the expansive web of corporate and governmental investment in breast cancer would eventually lead me to confront the use of the disease to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East—a particular manifestation of pinkwashing that works in concert with military and market interventions, at the same time that it seeks to conceal them.

It was First Lady Laura Bush’s two cancer diplomacy visits to the region, towards the end of her husband’s second term in office, that first alerted me to the existence of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness. Announced in 2006, this public-private venture was a project of the State Department and supported by a variety of corporations and non-governmental organizations in the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and Palestine.

The breast cancer partnership resulted in the creation of a number of programs including the dubiously titled “Making it Our Business” campaign, which had the dual aim of “saving lives” and promoting corporate social responsibility by encouraging companies to launch awareness programs and offer free screening to employees. The “Train the Trainer” program taught employees of multinationals to spread the message of breast cancer screening at work and promoted public-private partnerships and cause-related marketing. Participating companies included General Electric, the largest manufacturer of mammography equipment in the world. While these particular programs have since ended, a Saudi awareness partnership between GE and the Komen Foundation is one of their many offshoots.

It should come as no surprise that the Komen Foundation has been a key player in the development of pink ribbon culture in the Middle East, nor that they have continued to promote a message of early detection even as the limited value of screening has become more widely acknowledged.

Komen held their first Middle Eastern Race for the Cure event in October 2009 among the pyramids at Giza, which were illuminated courtesy of General Electric and supported by the Patronage of Suzanne Mubarak, then First Lady of Egypt and wife of US-backed dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

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2010 saw the first Race for the Cure in Israel, organized through a partnership between Komen, the City of Jerusalem, and Hadassah®, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

YouTube Video

YouTube Video featuring Komen founder Nancy Brinker:

The event was widely covered and celebrated within and outside of Israel as an event that was “bridging the gap between cultures,” in the words of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). Breast cancer critic Ellen Leopold noted in a letter to the JTA that their coverage created the impression that Palestinian women from the West Bank or Gaza were involved in the Race when they were very likely not. Rather, the event included some Israeli Arab women who are citizens of Israel. Leopold argues that the suggestion that the Komen event generated mutual good will not only blurs the distinction between Arab Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza; it also ignores the discrimination of Arab Islraelis within Israel itself, making their access to quality medical care problematic at best.

“NGOization” Fosters Dependence on the West

At the same time that Komen-like awareness events paper over social injustices, they also advance a particular ideology about how populations should be structured and governed. Public-private partnerships work to promote individual and corporate philanthropy as a morally and economically preferable means through which to respond to societal needs, in the place of the government role in mitigating the destructive effects of capitalism. A process referred to by critics as “NGOization.”

Arab feminists point out that the professionalization and institutionalization of Arab social movements and the infiltration of U.S.-funded nonprofit organizations into multiple aspects of everyday life over the past two decades can be directly linked to U.S. military interventions in the region. While in diplomacy and development circles, non-governmental projects like the breast cancer partnership are promoted as equivalent to “positive” social change, NGOization has “unleashed a heated debate” in the Arab world. In Islah Jad’s (2003) words, “they have been viewed as a new and growing form of dependency on the West, and as a tool for it to expand its hegemony.”

IMG03 MEPI Advocates Reunite in Cairo

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Indeed, while the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) — the umbrella project of the breast cancer initiative — was launched in 2002 by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in the run up to the invasion of Iraq as a tool of soft diplomnacy, a 2005 Congressional Research Service report suggested that large sectors of the Middle Eastern public had not responded well to the initiative. An editorial in the Beirut-based Al-Safir newspaper claimed that the purpose of MEPI was to link “the ambitions of some people in the Arab world to the objectives of the United States, not the objectives of the United States to the ambitions of people in the Arab world.”

One year after the publication of the skeptical congressional report, the breast cancer awareness program was rolled out, with Laura Bush, at that point with an approval rating 30 percent higher than her husband’s, as its figurehead. During her first visit to the Middle East to promote the program, Mrs. Bush spoke to a group of students about the project to ask them “not to believe everything they watch on TV or hear about the U.S.,” and to express her hope that the partnership would illustrate for Middle Easterners the “positive character of U.S. culture”.

In addition to propagandizing for U.S. interests in the Middle East, the export of a depoliticized, corporatized, and individualized version of breast cancer advocacy helped to undermine the work of feminist social movements that were already compromised by what Sari Hanafi and Linda Taber refer to as an “advocacy, workshops, and training programs” approach to mobilizing women. Pro-woman but not feminist, empowered but not enraged, sisterly but not collective, and thoroughly disconnected from questions of race, class, or colonialism, the culture of U.S. breast cancer survivorship has been a potent export in the geopolitical climate of the past decade.

Under the Obama administration, the Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness was phased out, but pink ribbon culture is now firmly established in the region, especially in the Gulf States, and various initiatives emerging under the State Department project having taken on a life of their own. While the Partnership provided a vehicle for Komen and its corporate partners to extend their cause-related marketing concerns overseas, the extent to which contemporary walkathons and Guiness world-record breaking human pink ribbons do anything substantial to improve women’s breast health remains unclear, as does the degree to which such initiatives helped establish any long term support for the policies of the U.S. and its largely autocratic allies in the Middle East. Given the U.S.’s considerable responsibility for the violence that continues to devastate broad swathes of the region, the Partnership’s goal to convince Middle Easterners of the “positive character of U.S. culture,” as Laura Bush described it in 2007, seems not simply naïve, but downright chilling.

Samantha King Photo ORIGINALSamantha King is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies and the Department of Gender Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, where she teaches and researches the politics of health, sport, and the body. Her book, Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy is the subject of a National Film Board documentary of the same name. She is currently at work on a political ecology of protein powder as part of a broader project on humans eating animals.

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