This just in: Driving damages women's ovaries. Or at least that's reality according to one Saudi cleric, Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, whose claim comes in anticipation of an Oct. 26 protest against the unofficial ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. According to an interview published on Saudi news site Sabq.org, Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, a judicial adviser to a Gulf psychologists' association, said if a women drives a car for a reason other than "pure necessity," it would mess up her ovaries and cause problems with future children.
"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," bin Saad al-Lohaidan told Sabq. There is an exception granted when a husband is injured behind the wheel during a car accident, and his wife must get him to the hospital, bin Saad al-Lohaidan added.
But otherwise, he continued, this is why the children of women who drive "regularly have children with clinical problems of varying degrees."
Bin Saad al-Lohaidan warned that for these medical reasons, women protesting the ban on driving should put "reason ahead of their hearts, emotions, and passions." And, you know, think of their ovaries.
The cleric's warning comes in anticipation of a "protest drive" in the country scheduled for Oct. 26. The related online petition has gathered more than 12,300 signatures to date.
Not surprisingly, the cleric didn't cite any medical or scientific evidence to back up his claims. Instead, he harkened back to the days of the Prophet Mohammad, when women accompanying men rode on camels or horses (never alone). Apparently these were the glory days of female transportation, and weren't rough on your hooha at all.
Bin Saad al-Lohaidan also lacked any sources for his figure that “33 percent of female drivers caused car accidents in Arab countries as opposed to nine percent male.” So the remaining 58 percent of accidents are caused by what, exactly?
Technically, there’s actually no official ban on women driving in the kingdom: The head of the morality police, Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh, said last week that there wasn't any specific sharia law banning women from driving — an admission that could hold some promise for the activists.
That said, it’s only the men of the kingdom who are allowed to receive driving licenses. When women are arrested for driving, as they frequently are, it’s not so much that they are arrested for driving itself but, legally, for driving sans-license. Although the punishment is meant to be a fine, sometimes, the women are imprisoned as an act of political protest.
With the big protest for the right of women to drive coming up Oct. 26, , bin Saad al-Lohaidan's appeal to women seems to be a last-ditch effort at talking women out of getting behind the wheel. His elite position imbues him with a certain degree of influence with fellow conservatives, as well as the royal family: Although Abdullah has the last word on government policy, the royal family "derives much of its legitimacy from the clerical elite."
However, bin Saad al-Lohaidan is seen as an "obstacle for reform" — especially regarding the small steps for women's freedoms Abdullah has backed tentatively. He got on the king's bad side in 2009 for his outspokenness, which resulted in bin Saad al-Lohaidan's dismissal from heading a top judiciary council. The same year, U.S. diplomats noted that his "ill-considered remarks" that have "embarrassed the kingdom on more than one occasion."
In other words, to keep hold of his ruling power, a king will want to be on the clerics' good side — and vocal clerics in a national debate tend to slow down any sort of policy change.
This means that in order to stay in power, Abdullah’s had to pick and choose his battles with the kingdom’s influential conservative elite since taking the throne in 2005. He's been attempting to project a progressive image: "Muslim women," the king said in a 2011 speech, have given “opinions and advice since the era of Prophet Muhammad” and, he added, “we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia."
In the years since he's taken office, activists for women's rights have been particularly vocal in their calls for progress.
"Saudi women’s rights activists are not passively waiting for their government to grant them equal rights, or meekly praising officials for the few reforms they deign to carry out," Vivian Salama, a journalist with a decade of experience in the Middle East, wrote for the Daily Beast. "Rather, they are telling their government to recognize that they are already equal, and that discriminatory restrictions on their ability to act on their own life decisions are human rights violations that need to end."
Among these human rights, Salama lists "the right to drive, the right to operate without male approval or supervision, as well as the right to win custody of a child or legally defend herself in cases of domestic violence."
According to Human Rights Watch, some progress has been made in the country, although Abdullah’s agenda is overall a “cautious” one. A landmark law criminalizing domestic violence was passed at the end of August. He’s let up on restrictions for women in the workforce, and appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, the formal advisory body of the kingdom.
Often, progress is measured in baby steps: April legislation saying women were free to ride bicycles was hailed as a major achievement and even the "beginning of a feminist revolution." But Saudi women are also still the world’s most limited group when it comes to economic potential, according to a World Bank report released earlier this month.
Considering the site is longer accessible to activists, it seems unlikely the ruling powers are behind the protest. With a new subway system being built in Riyadh, the kingdom's capital, many government officials are trying to hail the investment in public transport as all the progress Saudi women need.
In any case, the king's historical and current silence on the matter isn’t giving anything away.