Saudi Arabian girls will be allowed to play the sport in private schools for the first time in the latest in a series of incremental changes to increase women’s rights in the ultraconservative kingdom slowly.
Saudi Arabia’s official press agency, SPA, reported on Saturday that private girls’ schools are now allowed to hold sports activities by 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.
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The decision does 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 the sport were a discrimination that hurt women’s health.
SPA quoted an education ministry spokesman, Mohammed al-Dakhini, saying the decision to allow girls to play the sport in private schools “stems from the teachings of our religion, which allow women such activities following 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 will likely affect public schools and universities – which are also gender-segregated – shortly 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 the local press saying there was a plan to expand sports 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 unlicensed grounds.
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 it’s 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 University – has a swimming pool, tennis court, and exercise area. No other university in Saudi Arabia has sports facilities for its female students and staff.
Strict rules regarding their attire also bind women, 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 sports clubs or league competitions. They are banned from entering national trials, making 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 modernize 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 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 many incremental and significant changes that have afforded women new roles in recent months.
Last year, a law was implemented 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 practice 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. Plans for a proposed barrier that would separate the genders remain 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 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, set a curriculum, and 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 favor, government policy is only inching toward realizing women’s right to sport rather than taking bold steps to realize it,” the report said.