Saudis to al­low girls to play sports in pub­lic schools

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

Saudi Ara­bia said yes­ter­day that it will grant girls in pub­lic schools ac­cess to phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion, a de­ci­sion that comes af­ter years of calls by women across the king­dom de­mand­ing greater rights and ac­cess to sports.

The Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry said it will in­tro­duce the phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion classes “grad­u­ally” and “in ac­cor­dance with (Is­lamic) Shariah reg­u­la­tions.” At least one Saudi ac­tivist took to Twit­ter ques­tion­ing whether this im­plied that girls will be re­quired to seek the per­mis­sion of their male guardians, such as a fa­ther, be­fore they can play sports. It was also un­clear if the classes would be ex­tracur­ric­u­lar or manda­tory.

The de­ci­sion to al­low girls to play sports in pub­lic schools is sig­nif­i­cant in Saudi Ara­bia be­cause women tak­ing part in ex­er­cise is still seen as a taboo. Some of the king­dom’s ul­tra­con­ser­va­tives shun the con­cept of women’s ex­er­cise as “im­mod­est” and say it blurs gen­der lines.

It was only four years ago that the king­dom for­mally ap­proved sports for girls in pri­vate schools. Women first par­tic­i­pated in Saudi Ara­bia’s Olympic team dur­ing the 2012 Lon­don games. De­spite in­cre­men­tal open­ings for Saudi women, tight re­stric­tions re­main in place. Women are banned from driv­ing and must seek the per­mis­sion of a male guardian to travel abroad or ob­tain a pass­port. Re­stric­tive male guardian­ship rules give men, usu­ally the fa­ther or hus­band, huge sway over a wo­man’s life in Saudi Ara­bia.

AC­CESS TO SPORTS

The move to grant girls ac­cess to sports comes af­ter years of campaigning by women’s rights ac­tivists, who have led calls to end male guardian­ship rules and lift the ban on women driv­ing. Out­side of a few up­scale gated com­pounds where for­eign­ers live, women do not jog or ex­er­cise in pub­lic spa­ces, and they are banned from at­tend­ing sport­ing matches in the coun­try’s ma­le­only sta­di­ums.

Women in Saudi Ara­bia must wear loose flow­ing robes known as “abayas” in pub­lic, and most also cover their hair and face with black veils.

Ac­cess to sports has largely been a lux­ury for those women who can af­ford it and whose fam­i­lies per­mit it. A hand­ful of pri­vate sports clubs have emerged over the years, al­low­ing some women to join in fe­male bas­ket­ball leagues. In re­cent years Saudi Ara­bia has ap­proved some li­censes for fe­ma­le­only gyms, but mem­ber­ship costs are be­yond the reach of many.

A new, sprawl­ing fe­male-only univer­sity in the cap­i­tal, Riyadh, has a large gym, out­door soc­cer pitches, run­ning tracks and in­door swim­ming pools. De­spite such fa­cil­i­ties, the coun­try’s top con­sul­ta­tive body, the Shura Coun­cil, re­jected a pro­posal ear­lier this year to es­tab­lish sports ed­u­ca­tion col­leges that would train women in how to teach fit­ness and well-be­ing, such as phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion cour­ses in schools.

Saudi Ara­bia im­ple­ments strict gen­der seg­re­ga­tion rules that of­ten re­quire women to sit in “fam­ily only” sec­tions of restau­rants and cafes, or to be banned en­tirely from es­tab­lish­ments where seg­re­gated seat­ing is un­avail­able. Boys and girls are seg­re­gated in schools and univer­sity to pre­vent un­re­lated males and fe­males from mix­ing. The Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry said the de­ci­sion to in­tro­duce sports for girls was in line with the coun­try’s sweep­ing Vi­sion 2030 plan , a wide-reach­ing govern­ment plan to over­haul so­ci­ety and the econ­omy. It is be­ing spearheaded by the king­dom’s young heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

The plan specif­i­cally calls for en­cour­ag­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of all ci­ti­zens in sports and ath­letic ac­tiv­i­ties. It says 13 per­cent of the Saudi pop­u­la­tion ex­er­cises once a week. The govern­ment aims to bump that up to 40 per­cent and raise life ex­pectancy from 74 years to 80 years. — AP

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