Thanks, Sheikh, But My Pelvis Is Fine

Editor’s note: I would like to welcome Nicole Hunter Mostafa, a past MMW guest contributor, on board as our newest regular writer!

Currently in Saudi Arabia, sisters are attempting to do things for themselves. There is a movement afoot. Saudi women are being encouraged to drive on October 26, in defiance of the de facto ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.*

Last week, as the movement ramped up, a Saudi sheikh, Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaydan, told the Saudi online newspaper Sabq that driving

“could have a reverse physiological impact. Physiological science and functional medicine studied this side [and found] that it automatically affects ovaries and rolls up the pelvis. This is why we find for women who continuously drive cars their children are born with clinical disorders of varying degrees.”

Um…what?

When word started going around that a sheikh in Saudi Arabia had made this proclamation, the first thing I thought of was the “babies in burqas” incident from last year, in which a nobody “cleric” (who is in no way affiliated with the Saudi government, but you wouldn’t know that by reading the English media coverage of it) was handed international infamy because of statements he made on YouTube months prior to the burst of media coverage…and which almost no one had seen or otherwise given any attention to until then.

I wondered if the “rolled-up pelvises” statement might be along the same lines: an insignificant nobody making a ridiculous YouTube fatwa (and as we all know, if there’s one word that causes Western media to fly into chickens-with-their-heads-cut-off mode, it’s “fatwa”…well, okay, that comes in second only to “jihad”). But as it turns out, this guy actually does have some kind of “credibility.” According to Al Arabiya news, he’s a “judicial and psychological consultant to the Gulf Psychological Association.”

Then I started to wonder if there was some sort of mistranslation going on. I mean, yes, there are obviously men who oppose allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia (and believe it or not, some women oppose it, too). If there weren’t… well, women would drive. But Saudi men, by and large, are not idiots. (Full disclosure: I’m married to one. A Saudi man, not an idiot, just to be clear.) Many wholeheartedly support issuing driver’s licenses to women. Others may oppose allowing women to drive, but they tend to back up their opposition with “Islamic” nonsense, not faux clinical idiocy. But I don’t read and understand Arabic fluently enough to determine for myself if a mistranslation is going on, and pieces that debunk stories about Saudi Arabia that are too silly to be true are often difficult to find and don’t receive a fraction of the coverage that the original, inaccurate stories do. (Case in point: earlier this year, a story about three Emirati men who were ejected from the Janadriyah festival in Riyadh and subsequently deported because they were “too hot” spread like wildfire—no pun intended—in English media. The story was easily debunked by Islawmix—in an excellent piece, I might add—and months later, one of the supposed deportees, Omar Borkan Al Gala, who rose to international fame because of the story, finally admitted that it was all false. But months later, you can still find articles being produced that refer to the story as factual).

As it turns out, there is, of course, more to the story than the English media want to tell. The story is getting traction in Arabic press, and just like everywhere else, it’s the subject of public mockery. The photo of the sheikh being used in most of the articles about this story comes from a live interview on a famous show called Rotana Khaleejia, during which the sheikh doubled down on his comments and in response, a male Saudi OB/GYN also on the show let the sheikh know in no uncertain terms that there is absolutely no scientific basis for his theory. But none of the articles mention that. Granted, perhaps that’s because no one really needs to be told that there is no scientific basis for the theory. But these are important details to be omitting, given that the comments on these articles often rush to condemn all Saudis, Arabs, and/or Muslims as Neanderthals.

Regardless of the contextual intricacies of the statement, I have to wonder how anyone could say anything so… absurd. If it were in any way accurate, one would surmise that Saudi Arabia must have one of the lowest rates of birth defects in the world. And, well, that’s not the case at all.

Eman Al Nafjan driving recently in Riyadh. [Source].

I’m an American woman who lives in Saudi Arabia. I got my driver’s license in Missouri on the day I turned 16. My dad started teaching me to drive when I was seven years old. Yes, seven—I still remember him turning down the gravel road to our house and stopping the car and saying, “Sis, you want to drive?” I was shocked, and I thought he was joking. He sat me in his lap, behind the wheel, and said, “Okay, sis. When you get older and you take driver’s ed, they’re going to tell you to put your hands on the wheel at ten and two—like this. But this is a better way. Just put your hand at the top of the wheel. When you move your hand to the right, the car moves to the right. When you move your hand to the left, the car moves to the left. And when your hand is pointing straight ahead, that’s where your car goes. Easy!” Although the appropriateness of this method may be arguable, to this day, that’s how I drive. I spent my childhood driving a farm truck on dirt roads, and doing so long before I had a license.

I’m also a mother. I gave birth to a baby girl about four months ago, and as far as we know, she’s healthy as a horse. And although I’ve been a driver for decades, my pelvis did just fine throughout the entire process of incubating and birthing her, thank you very much.

In some ways, my daughter is lucky to be Saudi-American, because if she reaches the legal driving age and this ridiculous driving ban is still in effect, then she can just go to her other country and get her driver’s license. But for Saudi women who don’t have two countries like my daughter, I sincerely hope that this sheikh’s diagnosis doesn’t turn into a tidbit of cultural conviction, the way Saudi grandmothers will tell you that riding a bicycle could compromise one’s virginity. Saudi Arabia is where Saudi women should learn to drive. After all, despite (justifiably) mocking Saudi Arabia for its ban on female drivers, the rest of the world isn’t altogether supportive of Saudi women learning to drive outside Saudi borders. When they try to learn in the States, they’re apparently a threat.

*There are actually no laws that state that women are not permitted to drive; rather, women just aren’t issued driver’s licenses, and international licenses generally aren’t recognized for women. Of course, it is illegal to drive without a driver’s license in most places in the world, including Saudi Arabia.  To complicate things further, the rule is inconsistently enforced; some women do drive in rural areas, and one blogger drove around Riyadh recently without getting pulled over, but the risk of more severe consequences is always there too.

  • cowalker

    “But these are important details to be omitting, given that the comments on these articles often rush to condemn all Saudis, Arabs, and/or Muslims as Neanderthals.”

    I don’t think the detail that most Saudis know that driving causes no health problems for women but they STILL oppose allowing women to drive makes them look any better. It makes Saudi men look like Neanderthals who are determined to maintain male privilege for no good reason except they don’t have the self-confidence to deal with women on an equal playing field.

    • Nicole Hunter Mostafa

      Actually, the details that I were referring to were A) Saudi television producers (most likely male) brought the sheikh on their show so that a male Saudi OB/GYN could publicly eviscerate the sheikh’s statements and B) the story of the sheikh’s statements is being widely mocked as it circulates in Saudi Arabian media. It’s a joke. Of course, I can’t speak for most Saudis (or even any Saudis, as I’m not one), but based on my experience, I feel safe in saying that most Saudis actually don’t oppose allowing women to drive.

      • cowalker

        I guess I’d be more impressed if the ban on women driving were widely mocked in Saudi Arabian media, rather than the straw man of the ignorant sheikh.

        • Nicole Hunter Mostafa

          The ban on women driving actually is often discussed–and yes, sometimes mocked–in Saudi Arabian media. Despite the fact (or at least, the widely held opinion, which I share) that not allowing women to drive is a violation of basic human rights, I know Saudi women who dread the day that the ban is lifted because they don’t particularly want to drive, and they fear that once women are issued driver’s licenses, the cost of employing a driver will skyrocket and they won’t be able afford that anymore. I know Saudi men who rant daily about the stupidity of the ban on women driving. The intent was not to impress, but to demonstrate that the situation is a lot more nuanced than the English media narrative of “those barbaric Saudi men won’t let women drive.”

          • JOANNE LAUSH

            Thank you for that nuanced explanation, Nicole. It certainly does help me to better understand the situation in some of the more conservative Islamic communities when some of the perspectives are more clearly defined. You made a point in your article about women in these places not wanting to drive and if they did they would be driving. So help me understand, when enough women seek equality and justice for themselves, then oppressive systems and ways will begin to disappear? How do they come to this awareness when a great majority of them only know the confines of their homes through their husband and other male relatives’ eyes? I imagine education will be a major contributor to showing other ways of being for both the women and the men. I think so much focus is put on liberating the women that we tend to forget how liberating a more just, respectful, equal society will be for the men. I look forward to any thoughts you might have on the topic.

          • Nicole Hunter Mostafa

            Hi, Joanne. Thanks for your comment. I think it’s a stretch to say that “a great majority” of Saudi women “only know the confines of their homes through their husband and other male relatives’ eyes.” Yes, life is extremely different here as a woman (as a man, too, I would imagine), but Saudi women do see “other ways of being” quite often. American movies and shows are often shown on TV here, and are quite popular (not to mention Indian movies, Korean shows, Egyptian shows, etc.–and we’ve got Arab Idol and Arabs Got Talent!). Saudis travel often (I’m going to guess they far outstrip Americans when it comes to passport ownership, as I’ve read that around two-thirds of Americans don’t have a passport), and if not to Western countries, at the very least to places like the United Arab Emirates, where the culture is still very Arabic but a dress code is not mandated and not all of the same sexist rules are in place. Women do leave their houses without male relatives, as well. Women work–albeit not at the same rate as their Western counterparts, but the percentage is growing. Also, there seems to be a perception in the West that Saudi women are not allowed out of their homes unless escorted by a male relative, and that is inaccurate. Yes, a male (whether that’s a relative, a hired driver, or a taxi driver) has to drive them wherever they want to go, but if you visit the malls and restaurants here, you will often find groups of women out on their own, with not a male relative in sight.

            Oh, and by the way, women in Saudi Arabia are quite educated. Granted, at 81% for women and 90% for men, the literacy rate still has some growing to do, but that growth is happening–it’s a given here that a girl will go to school.

            Now, does that mean that Saudi Arabia is just peachy keen the way it is? Of course not. No way. A lot of things need to change, and it is happening, albeit at a snail’s pace. I expect that things will continue to change slowly over time, much the same way things changed in America. American women didn’t (and don’t) need an outside culture influencing them in order to stand up for their rights, and I don’t think Saudi women do, either. But Saudi women (and men), just like every other group of people on the planet, are shaped by their culture. And their culture is not inherently bad (really, it isn’t); it’s just different. Even if a more “just, respectful, and equal” society is established in Saudi Arabia, it’s still probably never going to look exactly the way the rest of the world wants it to.

            But you’re right about progressive change being good for the men, as well. My husband says that he thinks all Saudi men would be completely in favor of women driving if they would realize how much easier and less stressful their lives will be when they don’t have to cart their wives and daughters and sisters everywhere they want to go. He predicts that the Saudi male life expectancy will skyrocket after the ban is lifted! :)


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