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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How to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.