First Published: 2013-11-18

Majority of Saudis favor women’s right to sports
Saudi survey counters conservative opposition in kingdom that asserts that allowing women to engage in sports would have negative social consequences.
Middle East Online

By James M. Dorsey - SINGAPORE

Saudi Arabia bowed to pressure last year to field for the first time ever women athletes at the London Olympics

A vast majority of Saudis favor women having the right to fully engage in sports in a country that has no official facilities for female athletes or physical education programs for girls in schools, according to a Saudi sociology researcher, who has put forward a series of recommendations at a time that the government is developing its first ever national sports plan albeit for men only.

Mariam Dujain Al-Kaabi concluded on the basis of a survey as part of her master thesis of 312 Saudis active in education who were almost evenly split between men and women that 73.5 percent unambiguously endorsed a woman’s right to engage in sports while 21.6 percent felt that their right should be conditional. Published by Ash-Sharq newspaper, the study countered conservative opposition in the kingdom that asserts that allowing women to engage in sports would have negative social consequences.

Ms. Al Kaabi’s study was published as the kingdom debates granting women the right to engage in sports, attend sporting events in stadia, enjoy physical education in state-run schools and on a non-sporting issue be allowed to drive. While many members of the ruling elite, including King Abdullah, are believed to favor granting women greater rights, the government has so far shied away from confronting conservative clerics who condemn women’s sports as corrupting and satanic and charge that it would spread decadence. The clerics warn that running and jumping could damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.

Saudi Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaydan cautioned in September as women launched an online campaign to demand their right to drive that driving could affect their ovaries and pelvises. Sheikh Al-Luhaydan, a legal and psychology consultant to the Gulf Psychological Association, quickly became the target of ridicule on social media with Saudis sarcastically congratulating him for his scientific discovery. An Arabic Twitter hashtag “Women_driving_affects_ovaries_and_pelvises” went viral.

The government is hesitant to confront conservative elements of the clergy at a time that it is trying to ring fence the kingdom against the wave of discontent and protest that has been sweeping the Middle East and North Africa for almost three years. While Saudi Arabia, a country where demonstrations are constitutionally banned, has not witnessed mass protests, it has experienced multiple expressions of demands for change, including protests in the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, home to its oil reserves; demonstrations in the arch conservative town of Buraidah, a bulwark of Saudis puritan Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, demanding the release of political prisoners; protests against princes who own soccer clubs in stadia and online; a women’s campaign for the right to drive; and an outpouring of criticism of the ruling family on social media.

Human Rights Watch last year accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil".

Saudi Football Federation (SFF) president Ahmed Eid Alharbi, a storied former goalkeeper who became the kingdom’s first elected sports official after his predecessor, a member of the ruling family, was forced under fan pressure to step down, hinted in September at the positive economic impact of allowing women to attend soccer matches would have. He said that the creation of facilities for women would increase capacity at stadiums by 15 percent.

Mr. Alharbi later qualified his remarks by saying that the decision to lift the ban on women was not his. “A decision like this is a sovereign decision. Neither I nor SAFF can make it. Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision,” he said. The government has been fretting over that decision for more than a year.

Saudi Arabia alongside Yemen was the only Muslim Middle Eastern nation that refused early this year to sign on to a campaign by Middle Eastern soccer associations to put women’s soccer on par with men’s football. In a statement, the associations grouped in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF), defined “an athletic woman” as “an empowered woman who further empowers her community.” In a rebuttal of opposition to women’s soccer among some Islamists across the region and more conservative segments of Middle Eastern society the seminar stressed that women’s soccer did not demean cultural and traditional values.

The statement called further for the appointment of women to the boards of WAFF member associations, establishment of a WAFF women’s committee, creation of Under-16 and Under-19 women competitions in the Middle East (West Asia) as well as the compulsory rotation of hosting of subsidized WAFF women competitions – demands Saudi Arabia has yet to comply with. WAFF nevertheless said that the kingdom would be included in women’s tournaments.

Ms. Al Kaabi’s study recommended that the government introduce sports a s a compulsory part of the curriculum in all government girls’ schools, provide playgrounds, approve sporting activities outside of school, establish women’s sports clubs and public exercise and training facilities, raise awareness of the health benefits of sports, establish a women’s section in Prince Nawaf’s Presidency of Youth Welfare (the equivalent of a ministry of youth and sports), and enable women to compete in international sporting events.

Saudi Arabia bowed to pressure last year to field for the first time ever women athletes at an international tournament, the London Olympics. It did so by fielding two expatriate Saudi females.

Saudi press reporting on Ms. Al Kaabi’s study illustrated the sensitivity of the issue. The Saudi Gazette introduced the study by referring to the fact that Widan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, a judo player and one of the two Saudi women athletes in London, was more concerned about being covered when her hijab dropped during the tournament than competing to win.

“It was a dramatic scene for a sportswoman who was keen to achieve recognition for herself and her country. What made the scene more dramatic, however, was her insistence to preserve the true image of Saudi women when she focused only on protecting her hair from being seen by others,” the Gazette said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

 

Egypt declares three-month state of emergency in Sinai

Lebanon army attacks Islamists as violence spreads to Tripoli souks

Dozens dead in Huthi-Qaeda clashes in central Yemen

Punishment for sexual assault in Iran: Execution of victim!

European clubs step up campaign against winter World Cup in Qatar

Turkey keeps 24 people under observation after yellow powder scare

Russia denies Kerry claims: No agreement to train Iraq army

Germany offers to help Armenia forge peace with Turkey

Libya wakes up from ‘Dubai dream’ to face Somalia-like ‘failed state’

South Yemen separatists vow to intensify secession protests

Relatives of Iraq massacre victims: Blackwater guards should be killed

Ghannouchi makes it clear to Tunisia: It’s either political Islam or Daesh!

Deadly clashes erupt after army raid in northern Lebanon

200 Iraqi Kurd fighters to travel through Turkey to Kobane

Coalition strikes in Syria eliminate more than 500 jihadists in one month

Ahead of elections, new clashes remind Tunisia of need to fight terror

Saudi Arabia jails mothers for preparing sons to wage jihad

Jury finds Blackwater guards guilty of 2007 'massacre' in Iraq

Iraq Kurds approve reinforcements for Kobane

Israel classifies car crash as ‘hit and run terror attack’

Turkish woman arrested for stepping on Koran

Erdogan criticises US for airdrops on Kobane

Iraq schools provide shelter but late to open for classes

Syria air force shoots down two of three 'IS warplanes'

Egypt court rules on ‘Nasr City terror cell’

Fire from Egypt wounds two Israeli soldiers near border

By hook or by crook, settlers notch up property gains in East Jerusalem

Turkey envoy meets leader of parallel government in Libya

Israel arrests seven Palestinian fishermen off northern Gaza

Khamenei to Abadi: Iraq can beat 'Islamic State' without foreign troops

Saudi special court rules in cases of riots and terrorism

Libya army scores small victory in Benghazi

Only in Libya: Government calls for civil disobedience

Kasserine reaps bitter harvest from Tunisia revolution: Poverty and terrorism

Iraq Kurds set to vote on deployment of Peshmerga forces to Syria

Islamic State ‘share in US weapons’ embarrasses Pentagon

Alderton: Morocco unrivalled business gateway to sub-Saharan Africa

Protests over IS turn Istanbul University into war zone

Turkey eyes stricter punishment against lawbreakers at protests

For Sudan President: Promises are something and re-election is something else

Iran returns Abadi to ‘house of obedience’

From traditional military to counterinsurgency force: Syria army grows more capable

South Sudan rivals accept 'responsibility' for civil war

British drones in Iraq also used for Syria surveillance

Turkey launches new wave of wire-tapping arrests