On May 17, The Washington Times published an article titled "Saudi cleric: Prohibit women from using air conditioning" (Web). Since then, the article has been circulating around social media and news outlets, including CNN Arabic and the United Arab Emirates' Al Bayan. It even sparked its own dedicated hashtag on Twitter.
The problem here is that the writer, Cheryl K. Chumley, cited a nameless Twitter account as her source, which Internet users later identified as @ra7eeq_ma5toum, belonging to a man who calls himself "Dr. Abul-Baraa." Closer inspection reveals the words "parody account" in plain English in the account's biography. Ms. Chumley's "Saudi cleric" is nothing more than a fictional character.
Twitter is filled with parody accounts made by Saudi users to poke fun at celebrities, government figures and religious clerics. Cleric impersonators often tweet absurd fatwas as a means of mocking fundamentalist ideology in Saudi Arabia. "Abul-Baraa" and his air-conditioning fatwa is an example of such satire.
In Ms. Chumley's defense, the "parody account" disclaimer may have been added after the article was published. In a later tweet on May 20, the user boasts in-character about his mention in "American newspapers," sharing the articles from The Washington Times and CNN Arabic. On May 21, he shared Al Bayan's article, boasting this time that "voice has reached the Arab papers."
While Al Bayan rectified its story, pointing at said parody account as the likely culprit, The Washington Times has not, and the article continues to be shared, unchanged. Also, while many readers from Saudi Arabia have pointed out the mishap, many more outside the kingdom remain clueless.
Saudi Arabia has a tarnished image as it is, so much so that these kinds of bizarre, Onion-style stories can easily pass as real. The question of how and why is a whole issue on its own, but one thing that is certain is that this kind of false reporting adds an extra hurdle for us Saudis. It's hard enough to push for reform in the kingdom without having to sort through stories that are inaccurate or outright fictitious.
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