On December 12, the women of Saudi Arabia pulled off two amazing accomplishments.
They exercised their right to vote for the first time in the country’s history—despite Saudi’s Grand Mufti, the most senior religious official, declaring that female involvement in politics was “opening the door to evil.” That morning, Princess Reema Bint Bandar al-Saud hit the booth, where her vote helped elect a woman to a seat on the capital city of Riyadh’s municipal council. Then she was driven in her chauffeured car—women can vote, but still can’t drive—to the Princess Noura University, where she had organized the largest single gathering of women ever in Saudi Arabia. She was expecting a crowd of 10,000 to meet her there.
“We had two metrics for success,” Al-Saud told Fast Company after the event. “Would 10,000 women come? And would we break the record?” Al-Saud, who for the past few years has been finding innovative ways to empower women in the country, had hoped that this “10KSA” initiative would set a Guinness World Record for the largest breast-cancer awareness ribbon ever made out of people (dressed in pink). The idea that so many women would stand up together against breast cancer in a country where the very word “breast” is still considered taboo was about as revolutionary as Al-Saud casting her historic ballot. A week before the event, things had looked grim. Al-Saud and her all-female team had been tracking their social media following–and the numbers just didn’t seem to be there.
But after one last targeted push in local media, over 13,000 women walked through the doors to partake in an eight-hour event featuring food, carnival games, spinning, and Zumba classes, and on-site screenings and surveys for mental health, breast cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
At around 6:15 p.m., Al-Saud and her team started the ribbon formation process. An hour and a half later, with thousands of women in formation, the speakers in the arena blew out and the giant video screen froze, delaying the Guinness judging by 25 minutes. Ultimately, the judges counted 8,246 women in their uniform pink head scarves–beating the previous record set in India by nearly 1,400 heads. (The event’s 1,900 female volunteers, plus the all-female food vendors, artisans, education specialists from the various ministries, and first aid and cleaning staff were not eligible to be counted.)
In addition to gathering a record number of women together to raise awareness, the event generated 1.5 million riyals (about the equivalent of $400,000) for the Zahra Breast Cancer Association.
“It was a magical night,” says Al-Saud. “This was a moment where we all finally stood together in one space and presented a unified story of our holistic health. We collectively said [to everyone], ‘You as an individual are important,’ and we hopefully changed the dialogue around women’s health in a way that is not frightening.”
Many of the women, like Al-Saud, had come directly from the polls—transported by family members or shuttle bus or even event-partner Uber. “On the same day we broke the Guinness record. I have to tell you, it was like this massive shift, where we all stood up together.”