(CNN) — A leading Saudi cleric warned women who drive cars could cause damage to their ovaries and pelvises and that they are at risk of having children born with “clinical problems.”
Sheikh Saleh Al-Loheidan’s widely derided remarks have gone viral as activists claim a website urging women to defy their country’s driving ban has been blocked in Saudi Arabia.
“If a woman drives a car,” Al-Loheidan told Saudi news website sabq.org in an interview, “it could have a negative physiological impact … Medical studies show that it would automatically affect a woman’s ovaries and that it pushes the pelvis upward.”
Explained Al-Loheidan, “We find that for women who continuously drive cars, their children are born with varying degrees of clinical problems.”
The controversial comments, published Friday, were widely interpreted throughout Saudi Arabia as an attempt to discourage women in the country from joining a popular online movement urging them to stage a demonstration by driving cars on October 26.
“This is his answer to the campaign,” Saudi women’s rights activist Aziza Yousef told CNN. “But it is an individual opinion. The clerical establishment is not behind this.”
Added Yousef: “He’s making a fool of himself. He shouldn’t touch this field at all — the medical field is not his field at all.”
Mai Al-Swayan, who was one of the first Saudi women to sign the online petition, called the comments “ridiculous: ” and added, “I am really disappointed. How could somebody ever make such a statement?”
Al-Loheidan’s words have been ridiculed mercilessly via social media since they were first reported.
An Arabic Twitter hashtag called “#WomensDrivingAffectsOvariesAndPelvises” was quickly created to make fun of Al-Loheidan — underscoring just how widely the call for Saudi women to defy the driving ban has resonated thus far.
And while numerous conservative voices have supported Al-Loheidan, many Saudis believe this was an extremely clumsy way of trying to counter the popularity of the October 26 campaign.
“I don’t think it will harm the campaign — on the contrary, it will make it stronger,” said Saudi columnist and author Abdullah Al-Alami.
Since it published online over a week ago, a petition on the website www.oct26driving.com has garnered more than 12,000 signatures from those asking authorities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to lift a de facto ban than prohibits women from driving.
“There is no justification for the Saudi government to prohibit adult women citizens who are capable of driving cars from doing so,” reads part of the petition. No traffic law specifically prohibits women from driving in Saudi Arabia, but religious edicts there are often interpreted to mean women are not allowed to operate a vehicle.
The new petition also urges the Saudi government to present “to the citizens a valid and legal justification” for the ban, demanding authorities should not simply blame it on “societal consensus.”
Many supporters of the campaign expressed dismay when reporting the website could no longer be accessed throughout the Kingdom as of Saturday.
A post on the Oct26driving.com website read, “Society wanting the ban to be lifted is apparently such a threat that the page petitioning the government to lift the ban has been blocked from within Saudi.”
Al Alami wondered if the numerous conservatives opposed to women being granted the right to drive may have asked for the site to be blocked. Still, Al-Alami said he isn’t too concerned.
“The message has been delivered,” said Al-Alami. “This is a battle we must fight. There is no U-turn.”
CNN was unable to reach various Saudi Ministries for comment.
The issue of women driving in the conservative kingdom has long been a contentious one. And while such demonstrations are extremely rare, they have been staged at least twice before.
In June 2011, dozens of women across Saudi Arabia participated in the “Women2Drive” campaign by driving throughout the streets of their cities.
In 1991, a group of 47 women drove through the country’s capital city, Riyadh. After being arrested, many were further punished by being banned from travel and suspended from their workplaces.
In addition to prohibiting driving, the country’s strict and compulsory guardianship system also prevents women from opening bank accounts, working, traveling and going to school without the express permission of their male guardian.
Saudi Arabia has been moving toward change under its current ruler, King Abdullah, who is considered a cautious reformer and proponent of women’s rights. In January, he appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, the first time women had been chosen for the country’s top consultative body. In 2011, he announced that women can run for office and vote in local elections in 2015, and in 2009, he appointed Saudi Arabia’s first female deputy minister.
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