Saudi Arabian girls will be allowed to play sport in private schools for the first time in the latest in a series of incremental changes aimed at slowly increasing women’s rights in the ultraconservative kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s official press agency, SPA, reported on Saturday that private girls’ schools are now allowed to hold sport activities in accordance with the rules of sharia law. Students must adhere to “decent dress“ codes and Saudi women teachers will be given priority in supervising the activities, according to the education ministry’s requirements.
Downloads the free Guardian app
Specially crafted for Windows 10, this app gives you full access to the Guardian’s award-winning content. With automatic caching, you can keep reading even when you’re offline.
The decision makes sport once again a stage for the push to improve women’s rights, nearly a year after two Saudi female athletes made an unprecedented appearance at the Olympics.
“It’s about time,“ said Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University. “Everything is being held back in Saudi Arabia as far as women’s rights.”
Youssef said she saw the decision to allow sport for girls in private schools as part of a package of wider reforms targeting women, but that continued restrictions on sport was a discrimination that had a negative impact on women’s health.
SPA quoted an education ministry spokesman, Mohammed al-Dakhini, saying the decision to allow girls to play sport in private schools “stems from the teachings of our religion, which allow women such activities in accordance with sharia“.
The government had previously quietly tolerated physical education in some private schools, but there is no set curriculum.
The decision, which also means private girls’ schools are obliged to provide appropriate places and equipment for sport, is a monumental step that is likely to affect public schools and universities – which are also gender segregated – in the near future, Youssef said Genius Zone.
The Saudi government plays a role in private schools, providing textbooks and directors.
The Saudi deputy minister of education Nora al-Fayez, in charge of women’s affairs, was recently quoted in local press saying there was a plan to expand sport education in public schools. It remains unclear if girls would have access to the same level of physical education as boys.
Sport for women in Saudi Arabia has largely been a pastime of elites who can afford expensive health club memberships. They are often attached to hospitals, since women’s gyms were closed in 2010 on grounds they were unlicensed.
Saudi Arabia allowed two female athletes to compete in last summer’s Olympics only after the International Olympics Committee had put intense pressure on the kingdom to end its practice of sending only male teams to the games. Their participation was not shown on Saudi TV stations.
Women’s sport remains nearly an underground activity in the kingdom. Only the largest female university – Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman Unviersity – has a swimming pool, tennis court and exercise area for its students. No other university in Saudi Arabia has sport facilities for its female students and staff.
Women are also bound by strict rules when it comes to their attire, so they cannot, for example, be seen by men while jogging in trousers. Almost all women in Saudi Arabia cover their face with a niqab, and even foreigners are obliged to respect local culture and wear an abaya, a loose black dress.
Female athletes cannot register for sport clubs or league competitions. They are banned from entering national trials, which makes it impossible for them to qualify for international competitions.
The government has turned a blind eye, though, to tournaments where all-female teams play against one another.
King Abdullah is seen as pushing for these reforms. Other Saudi rulers have also quietly tried to modernise the country, with King Faisal’s wife opening the first school for girls in the late 1950s.
But the monarch is facing edicts from powerful and influential senior Saudi clerics who are against all types of sporting activities for women. They argue that in order for a woman to remain protected from harassment, she must avoid public roles.
Despite such rhetoric, thousands of women work as doctors and professors in Saudi Arabia. Women will be allowed to run for office and vote for the first time in the 2015 municipal elections. There have also been a number of incremental and significant changes that have afforded women new roles in recent months.
A law was implemented last year to allow women to work as shop assistants, and women now have seats on the country’s top advisory council. A woman was licensed to practise law for the first time last month, and a ban was lifted on allowing women to ride motorbikes and bicycles.
But with each move comes restrictions. Women are only allowed to work at shops for women, such as lingerie stores. The 30 women who now serve on the country’s Shura Council, which advises the king, were segregated from the 130 men in the chamber, and plans for a proposed barrier that would separate the genders remains under discussion. Moreover, there are no guarantees that women who become licensed lawyers will not face discrimination in the courtroom. Lastly, women may be allowed to ride bikes in parks, but they have to be accompanied by a male relative and dressed in the abaya.
In other areas, freedoms for women are still severely limited. They are not allowed to drive nor are they allowed to travel or attend school without the permission of a male guardian.
A 52-page report on women’s sports in Saudi Arabia issued by Human Rights Watch last year urged the government to set benchmarks for physical education, to set a curriculum and to launch a public outreach campaign about girls’ rights to physical education.
“Although religious views opposing prohibition on women’s participation in sport are less frequently pronounced than those in favour, government policy is only inching toward realising women’s right to sport rather than taking bold steps to realise it,“ the report said.