The Guardian reports that Saudi school girls are now going to be allowed to play sports for the first time. In the latest of a series of changes aimed at increasing women’s rights in the ultra-conservative kingdom, private girls’ schools are now permitted to hold sports activities that comply with the rules of sharia.
That means that students must adhere to dress codes while participating in sports and, preferably, have female teachers supervising.
"It’s about time," Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University, is quoted as saying. "Everything is being held back in Saudi Arabia." Youssef added the change was part of increased rights for women being implemented in the kingdom, but noted that remaining restrictions on women being able to participate in sports has a negative impact on their health.
The Saudi government closed down women’s gyms in 2010 under the pretense that they were unlicensed, pushing women who wanted to exercise “underground.” Now, only expensive health clubs attached to hospitals are open to women.
Only one university in the entire Kingdom – the all-female Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman Unviersity — has sports facilities for women.
Youseeff said that this latest decision was a telling move and is likely to affect public schools and universities , which are also gender segregated, prodding them to do the same.
The decision makes sport a stage for the push to improve women’s rights once again, nearly a year after two Saudi female athletes made an unprecedented appearance at the London 2012 Olympics.
Saudi Arabia allowed the athletes to compete only after the International Olympics Committee put intense pressure on the kingdom to end its practice of sending just male teams to the games. Their participation was not shown on Saudi TV stations.
In other areas, freedoms for women are still severely limited. They are not allowed to drive nor are they allowed to travel or attend school without the permission of a male guardian. Women will be allowed to run for office and vote for the first time in the Kingdom’s history in the 2015 municipal elections. Less than 20 percent of Saudi women are in the workforce due to restrictions in professions women are allowed to hold. Only last year were women allowed to work in shops (and only those that sell items strictly for women).
Moreover, women in Saudi Ararbia must cover their entire body (except for their hands) with a loose dress called an abaya; their faces must be veiled with a niqab.