Editorial: The drive for equality

A delightfully funny story caught our attention when Southland Times staff were researching material to include in Times of Change, published last November to celebrate 150 years of daily journalism in the south: a news item in April 1896 noted that the latest craze of cycling had become so popular even the fair sex had taken it up and "ladies may be seen daily cycling through the streets".

That report was quickly followed by another, in a much more sombre vein, from the British Medical Association containing a dire warning of the dangers to females of such behaviour. "The brain, the eyes, the ears, the hands, the feet must ever be on the alert and act in harmony and, remembering the close kinship existing between the brain and the generative organs, the almost inevitable result must be harmful," according to the BMA's president, one Dr O'Sullivan, who promptly retired.

Those reports were indicative of the prevailing attitudes towards women in a male-dominated society more than a century ago and while we may laugh at that thinking now, in fairness to Dr O'Sullivan little was known at the time about the long-term effects of that recently invented form of mobile transport.

No such excuses can be made for Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, a conservative Saudi Arabian cleric who has become an international laughing stock after insisting that women who tried to drive their husband's cars risked damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems.

Women are banned from driving in the kingdom, a ban that is rigorously enforced by religious police. Females caught behind the wheel are fined and, in the most "blatant" instances, sent to prison. Last month Manal al-Sherif was charged with "besmirching the kingdom's reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion" after uploading to the web a video of herself driving through the streets. She was held in prison for 10 days and let go only after agreeing that she would never do it again.

Her video is part of a 20-year campaign by Saudi women to win the right to drive themselves. They see the right to drive as the thin edge of the wedge in their fight for sexual equality in the notoriously male-dominated state and female activists have called for a day of public protest driving later this month.

That call appears to have prompted the claim by Sheikh Lohaidan that women risked damaging their ability to have healthy children by getting behind the wheel unless in exceptional circumstances.

The sheikh, who opposes giving women any rights, is reported to have told a Saudi news website that "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.

"That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees." Dr O'Sullivan would almost certainly have recognised the pseudo science supporting that claim. Most Saudi males support the ban, arguing that it protects women and relieves them of the "obligation to drive", while also preventing them from leaving home unescorted or travelling with an unrelated male. Saudi women, not surprisingly, see the ban as yet another way for men to treat them them as second-class citizens.

The national protest has been called for October 26, to mark the date in 1990 when 47 women were arrested in the first mass protest. Those women deserve support.

The Southland Times