Saudi cleric says women drivers risk damaging their ovaries

A successful campaign by Saudi women to defy a driving ban provokes one odd pseudo-scientific response.

The success of a campaign calling for women to defy the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia has provoked an odd pseudo-scientific warning from one conservative cleric, Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, who said that women drivers risked damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems.

"If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards," Sheikh Lohaidan told the news website Sabq.org.

"That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees."

Al-Lohaidan’s remarks came as a campaign on Twitter for Saudi women to stage a protest drive gathered 11,000 followers. It isn’t the first time that the country’s conservative clerics, tired of hysterically railing against the decline in public morality that will come from allowing women their basic human rights, have turned to strange scientific argument to support their points.

In the run-up to the London Olympics, where judo player Wojdan Shahrkhani became the first Saudi women to compete in the Olympics, Human Rights Watch published a report on the Kingdom’s attitudes to women in sport. Among the arguments put forward by those opposing women’s physical education was that the health of a “virgin girl” can be affected by too much moving and jumping in sports like football or basketball, that physical exercise can damage women’s fertility and cause irregular periods, and finally the suggestion that women playing football will start by removing their headscarves and eventually end up removing their ordinary clothes so that there will be “no more difference between us and others, until we gradually get rid of all distinguishing differences” between men and women.

One of the barmiest of scientific suggestions was made two years ago, by two clerics concerned at women mixing with male non-relatives, who suggested that women should give their breast milk to male colleagues to create a more family-like environment.

These weird pronouncements would be funny if they didn’t represent something far more sinister. In recent years, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have been improving, albeit it very slowly and from a low base. Saudi had its first female minister in 2009, and this year the first female members of Saudi’s Shura council, which advises on laws, were sworn in. From 2015, women should be allowed to vote and run for office in municipal elections. And women’s education is improving. Today, around 60 per cent of college students are women, which hopefully means that few women will take Al-Lohaidan’s warnings seriously.

But women in Saudi Arabia still need permission from a male relative to travel, to get a job, take out a loan or even send a text message abroad, and each small advance for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia will be bitterly contested by the country’s reactionary clerics, who still hold considerable sway in the country.

We might sneer at al-Lohaidan’s poor grasp of biology, but the worst thing we can do is let his odd comments distract attention for the brave women campaigning for this most basic of rights – to be allowed to drive. Nor should we forget that for women in Saudi, conservative clerics like al-Lohaidan represent a very real threat.

A woman leaving a car in Saudi Arabia. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The toxic new right-wing media will outlast Trump even if he’s impeached

Fox News and a network of smaller outlets have created an alternative version of reality. That ecosystem might prove more durable than the US president. 

An early end to Donald Trump’s presidency looks more feasible than at any time in the 117 days since his inauguration.

The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that FBI director James Comey – who was fired by Trump a week ago – wrote a memo recording the President’s request he “let go” an investigation into links between Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, and Russia.

Already there is talk of impeachment, not least because the crime Trump is accused of - obstructing justice - is the same one that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress the impeachment process would be long and fraught, and is only likely to succeed if public opinion, and particularly the opinion of the Republican voters, swings decisively against Trump.

In another era, the rolling coverage of the president's chaotic, incompetent and potentially corrupt administration might have pushed the needle far enough. But many of those Republican voters will make their decision about whether or not to stick with Trump based not on investigative reporting in the NYT or Washington Post, but based on reading a right-wing media ecosystem filled with distortions, distractions and fabrications.

That ecosystem – which spans new and (relatively) old media - will be going into overdrive to protect a president it helped elect, and who in turn has nourished it with praise and access.

On Monday, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel took a forensic look at how a new breed of hyper-partisan right wing sites – what he calls the "Upside Down media" – tried to undermine and discredit claims that Trump disclosed sensitive security information to Russian officials.

The same tactics can already be seen just 24 hours later. Notorious conspiracist site Infowars talks of “saboteurs” and “turncoats” undermining the administration with leaks, mirroring an email from Trump’s campaign team sent late on Tuesday. Newsmax, another right-leaning sight with links to Trump, attacks the source of the story, asking in its web splash “Why did Comey wait so long?”. GatewayPundit, which published several false stories about Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, appears to have ignored the story altogether. 

As Warzel points out, these new sites work in concert with older media, in particular Rupert Murdoch’s ratings-topping cable news channel Fox News.

Fox initially underplayed the Comey memo’s significance, switching later to projecting the story as a media-led attack on Trump. At the time of publication, the Fox homepage led with a splash headlined: “THE SHOW MUST GO ON Lawmakers vow to focus on Trump agenda despite WH controversies.”

Fox acts as a source of validation for the newly established right-wing sites. Once Fox has covered a story, smaller sites can push further and faster, knowing that they aren't going too far from at least one outlet considered respectable and mainstream. If anything should make the UK value the impartiality rules, however imperfect, which govern its broadcast news, it’s Fox’s central role in enabling this toxic mix of misinformation.

These new media sites have another weapon, however. They understand and exploit the way internet platforms - in particular Facebook - are designed to maximise attention. They have found that playing on very human desires for stories that confirm our biases and trigger emotional responses is the best way to build audiences and win fans, and they have little compulsion abusing that knowledge.

This isn’t just a Trump or Fox-related phenomenon. It’s not even just a right-wing one. In both the US and the UK left-wing hyper-partisan sites with a tenuous relationship with the truth have sprung up. They have followed the same playbook, and in most cases the same advertising-based funding model, which has worked so well for the right. Emotive headlines, spun stories, outright fabrications and an insistence that “the corrupt mainstream media won’t report this” work just as well in generating clicks and shares for both ends of the political spectrum.

The main difference between the two political poles is that the right has benefited from an ideologically and temperamentally suited president, and a facilitator in Fox News. 

Of course the combined efforts of this new media and the Fox-led old may still fail. Trump’s recent transgressions appear so severe that they could break through to even his diehard supporters.

But if Trump does fall, the new right wing media ecosystem is unlikely to fall with him. 

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