Emma Cowing: women must keep driving the boundaries

A Saudi woman gets out of the back of a car. Picture: Getty
A Saudi woman gets out of the back of a car. Picture: Getty
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THE day after I passed my driving test, I took the car out to the bustling metropolis that is the Perthshire village of Lochearnhead.

I came late to driving, and silly as it may seem, passing my test at the age of 33 after failing [redacted] times remains the sort of personal achievement I’m disappointed I didn’t receive an actual medal for. In the car on my own for the first time that day, I revelled in the freedom. I switched on the radio, put my foot down, and experienced the unique joy that comes with having an open road ahead, a full tank of petrol and the agonising choice between a set of furry dice or one of those air fresheners that smell of vanilla cupcakes.

But in Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving, things are not so simple. At the weekend, a fellow by the name of Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists, said women aiming to overturn the ban should put “reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions”. Lohaidan had this to say about the radical notion that a woman might want to get behind the wheel of a car and, you know, drive it.

“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,” he told a website. “That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”

Amazingly, he did not actually cite any of these particular “functional and physiological medical studies”, or tell us where we could find such research, but I’m sure that’s just a minor oversight. Because obviously, no-one would make such claims without having good, hard, solid evidence to back them up. Would they?

The timing of these comments is interesting. There has been something of a change in attitudes in Saudi Arabia – one of the most restrictive countries in the world for women – recently, albeit a small one. Women in Saudi can now ride bikes, and take part in certain forms of exercise – something previously banned because it might break a woman’s hymen, thus, apparently, invalidating her virginity (the horror). There are also now women on the shura council, which advises the government – one of whom should probably consider having a word in the ear of our chum Sheikh Lohaidan.

Perhaps most crucially however, a campaign was recently launched calling for women to defy the ban on driving. The campaign wants women to take part in a protest drive on 26 October and has gained support from a number of female activists in the country. The powers that be are clearly taking it seriously – the website supporting the campaign has been blocked in the Kingdom, and now Lohaidan has been wheeled out to make his pathetic claims.

Why is it these men are so threatened that the mere thought of a woman getting behind the wheel of a car, putting it into gear and driving off is so powerful, so terrifying, has them breaking out in a sweat? It’s almost as if a woman who drives might have more independence, which would surely lead to the end of civilisation as Saudi Arabian men know it. Or maybe that’s just my “pushed up” pelvis talking.

This is not the first time a man has spouted utter medical baloney in order to validate a notion that oppresses or belittles women. Last year, US Congressman Todd Akin claimed that women couldn’t get pregnant from rape because “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down”. It doesn’t, but fortunately women have ways of shutting down ludicrous comments such as that of Akin’s. His ill-informed views – which sounded as though they came straight out of the Ladybird Guide to Misogynistic Creationism – were swiftly ridiculed until he was forced into an apology.

As long as women keep pushing the boundaries – whether it be driving in Saudi Arabia or, to pluck a topic out of thin air, women’s football in Scotland, there will always be a few men around trying to keep them back. That the women of Saudi Arabia have lived with such fearsome oppression for so long and are still willing to challenge it is, it seems to me, an act of true bravery. That the country’s hierarchy is clutching at nonsensical straws in order to stop them, merely shows those women are getting it right.