Saudi women in soccer stands
MOSCOW — In jeans, headscarves and veils, dozens of Saudi women draped in their country’s green flag and sporting matching face paint streamed into Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday to support their national team against Russia in the World Cup’s opening match.
More importantly, perhaps, they were projecting the image of a new Saudi Arabia in which they are slowly emerging from decades of harsh inequality as part of ambitious reforms undertaken by the country’s young crown prince.
The conservative kingdom where much of life is governed by Islamic laws shook off some of its most oppressive practices against women this year. Women were allowed into sports stadiums in January for the first time to watch soccer matches, although they were segregated in the stands, sticking to the “family section” away from all-male crowds elsewhere.
Saudi authorities have also lifted the world’s only ban on women driving, a decision that will go into effect June 24 and end women’s long standing complaints about having to hire costly male drivers, use taxis or rely on male relatives.
“If we are to talk big picture, then I say that women coming to Russia to support the national team is another step toward equality,” said Nada Altuwaijry, a British-educated media expert from the Saudi capital Riyadh who says she has been passionate about soccer since she was age 12.
Reem Al-Muteiry came to Moscow with her mother and siblings, courtesy of an all-paid trip offered by the kingdom’s highest sports body. Wearing a flowing robe and a hijab, the 25-year-old civil servant said she cared little about soccer.
“But I came all the way here for the sake of our national team,” she said. “The presence of Saudi women here should be a source of pride for both the kingdom and the team.”