Women and Sports in Saudi Arabia

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, May 8, 2013

Last summer, I wrote about two young women from Saudi Arabia, Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar, who were the first Saudi women ever to compete in the Olympics. They had to endure criticism from conservatives at home and lots of discussion about what they would wear to compete, but they served as a powerful symbol of a better future for Saudi women’s athletic participation.

Now, young women in Saudi Arabian private schools have the chance to take part in an activity open to most students all over the world—sports. Currently, women’s sports in Saudi Arabia take place unofficially in private schools or in private “health clubs” (rather than women’s gyms, which are not given licenses). The recent decision to permit sports only applies to private schools, so girls in public schools will be left out, at least initially. However, measures to allow girls’ sports in public schools seem to be in the works, including as of this March; as early as 2011, Saudi Arabia actually said it would establish physical education classes for female students in public (government) schools, although nothing appears to have happened.

Last month, Saudi Arabia’s religious police said that women could ride bikes and motorbikes—but under certain caveats including only riding bicycles for recreation (as opposed to transportation) in “recreational areas.” Reactions to this have been mixed. “[Women] will also have to be dressed in full Islamic body coverings, and–in a darkly comic stipulation that evokes images of tandems–they will have to be accompanied by a male relative,” writesjournalist Nabila Ramdani in The Guardian.

The issue of women driving remains unresolved. In April, Prince AlWaleed bin Talal came out in support of women behind the wheel, arguing that it was a smart economic move that would free the country from its dependence on foreign drivers. Practical arguments like these may find some support among those who are ambivalent about giving women more freedom. Even the decision about permitting girls’ sports gives a nod to the question of foreign employment, as Saudi women will be first in line for employment as physical education teachers. The health aspect of the recent sports decision is another obvious practical argument to make, and was one that also came up during Saudi Arabia’s shutting down of women’s gyms a few years ago, when women started an ironically titled campaign, “Let Her Get Fat.” (In March, it was reported that women’s gyms/sports clubs would receive licenses, but an official later corrected this report, saying that this was only in discussion).

History shows the difference that government support for sports can make. In the U.S., the passage of Title IX  expanded opportunities for women’s sports and had a swift impact: in 1972, one in twenty-seven high school women in the U.S. played sports, but by 1978, when schools had to be compliant with the law, one in four high school women did. Saudi Arabia is starting with a much lower baseline of participation than the United States in a social environment that is far more hostile to women’s sports. However, the recent decision on sports in Saudi Arabia is a step in the right direction that might eventually inspire athletic leadership among young women who have yet to even play sports.

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