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.