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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt