Saudi sta­di­ums will no longer be male-only do­mains

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - AYA BATRAWY

Saudi Ara­bia will al­low women into sports sta­di­ums as of next year, the king­dom’s lat­est step to­ward eas­ing rules on gen­der seg­re­ga­tion — but they will be seated in the so­called fam­ily sec­tion, an area sep­a­rate from the male-only crowd.

Still, the de­ci­sion an­nounced Sun­day marks another in­cre­men­tal step to­ward greater women’s rights in the king­dom.

The Gen­eral Sports Author­ity de­scribed the de­ci­sion as one that will al­low “fam­i­lies” into the sta­di­ums — a term au­thor­i­ties use to re­fer to the pub­lic spaces that ac­com­mo­date women.

Th­ese “fam­ily” sec­tions are for women who are out on their own or who are ac­com­pa­nied by a male rel­a­tive. Many restau­rants and cafes, which of­ten also have sep­a­rate en­trances for women, have sim­i­larly seg­re­gated seat­ing ar­range­ments.

The author­ity said the three ma­jor sports sta­di­ums in the cap­i­tal Riyadh and the cities of Jed­dah and Dam­mam will un­dergo ren­o­va­tions to ac­com­mo­date fam­i­lies.

The de­ci­sion comes af­ter the pub­lic ap­peared to wel­come a de­ci­sion to al­low women to drive next year. Many also re­sponded en­thu­si­as­ti­cally when women were al­lowed into the Riyadh sta­dium for na­tional day cel­e­bra­tions last month.

It’s a stark re­ver­sal from years of al­low­ing only men into the sta­di­ums, many built with hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars when oil prices were nearly dou­ble what they are now. The gov­ern­ment spent lav­ishly on the sta­di­ums in an ef­fort to ap­pease its young pop­u­la­tion and pro­vide spaces for fans ea­ger to cheer on lo­cal clubs, as well as hold na­tional pa­rades and cer­e­monies.

Two years ago, a Saudi woman was ar­rested while at­tend­ing a soc­cer game in Jed­dah’s King Ab­dul­lah Sports City, which opened to the pub­lic in 2014. Po­lice were quoted in lo­cal me­dia at the time as say­ing se­cu­rity spot­ted her at the sta­dium “de­lib­er­ately dis­guised” in pants, long-sleeve top, hat and sun­glasses to avoid de­tec­tion.

Over the years, though, there have been some ex­cep­tions for for­eign women. In 2015, an Aus­tralian fe­male sup­porter of Western Syd­ney Wan­der­ers soc­cer club was per­mit­ted to at­tend a match at Riyadh’s main sta­dium and a group of Amer­i­can women trav­el­ling with mem­bers of U.S. Congress watched a lo­cal club match, also in Riyadh.

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