Women in Saudi Arabia got into cars and drove this weekend.
That wouldn’t be a big deal in the United States but it’s a massive act of civil disobedience in a country that essentially bans women from driving.
There’s no actual law on the books that prohibits women from operating vehicles, but conservative religious clerics with political clout have long opposed the idea. In reality, women rely on male guardians or drivers to take them places in a country with limited public transportation. And they’re sick of it.
Thousands of women signed an online petition and pledged to get behind the wheel on Saturday to protest the de facto ban.
Some uploaded videos of themselves driving to YouTube.
One woman told CNN that protesters were taken to a police station for driving, asked to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t drive again and released to their male guardians.
So why is driving such a big deal?
A lot of it likely has to do with the fact that giving women the right to drive would essentially give women some degree of autonomy in a nation where they are expected to be subservient to men.
But that’s not what the religious clerics who support the ban say. Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, a conservative member of the country’s Senior Council of Scholars, reportedly said during an interview with sabq.org that driving is physically harmful to women. Other clerics supported his claims.
“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 reportedly said. “That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”
The protest has generated lots of social media buzz. Social activist and comedian Hisham Fageeh recorded an ironic Bob Marley-inspired song, "No Woman, No Drive," and posted it to YouTube. It has been watched by more than three million people in just several days.
This is not the first time women have defied the ban. But it’s likely going to require women getting in their cars day in and day out to see any marked change. One day of action isn't likely to spur real change.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.