Girls attending private school in Saudi Arabia will soon be allowed to participate in sports, a move that many observers see as a further indication that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is quietly trying to modernize his ultra, mega conservative country. The announcement comes on the heels of a statement last month from Prince AlWaleed bin Talal about how women should be allowed to drive, if only because Saudi Arabia’s reliance on foreign drivers was hurting the country’s economy.
Saudi Arabia’s official press agency, SPA, reported Saturday that girls in private schools are now allowed to participate in sports so long as their dress and activities fall within the bounds of sharia law. According to education ministry spokesman, Mohammed al-Dakhini, the decision to allow girls to play sports "stems from the teachings of our religion, which allow women such activities in accordance with sharia."
The renewed coverage of Saudi’s female athletes comes almost a year after the country caved to pressure from the International Olympics Committee and sent two women to the London Olympics, a move that was alternately praised and criticized by observers who believed that the Saudi government was simply setting its female athletes up to fail. (According to the Guardian, the womens’ events weren’t even televised on Saudi TV.) Though the government has previously allowed physical education for girls in some schools, there has been no set curriculum, and women participating in sports has mostly been an underground activity.
From the Guardian:
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.
King Abdullah’s push for greater gender equality in Saudi Arabia is seen as long overdue, though he’s met with stout resistance from more conservative members of the royal family, as well as a contingent of buzzkill Saudi clerics who are opposed to women competing in any sports whatsoever. Letting private school girls compete will hopefully mean that female sports participation trickles down into the public school system, but women are still hard-pressed to gain equality in Saudi Arabia, where merely possessing a pair of “tempting eyes” is against the rules.
Image via Getty, Alexander Hassenstein