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.

 

‘Islamic State’ gives Jordan 24 hours before execution of hostages

Erdogan says Turkey opposed to Syrian Kurdistan

Three killed in Tripoli luxury hotel attack

Baghdad flights suspended after ‘arms fire’ hits flydubai jet

Saudis pledge allegiance to new king on Twitter

UN harshly criticises Turkey for deterioration of human rights

Ex-Shebab chief urges others to surrender in first public appearance

Bomb kills and wounds three terrorists in Egypt's Alexandria

Three killed in protest against MINUSMA in Mali

Humanitarian crisis looms for thousands of families in southern Iraq

Rockets fired from Syria explode in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

Egypt Grand Mufti condemns actions of Muslim Brotherhood

Residents trickle back to Kobane after expulsion of jihadists

Obama comes to Saudi with heavyweight delegation

Cash-strapped UNRWA halts Gaza house repairs

'Constructive spirit' at Libya peace talks

US says Syria’s Kobane not fully liberated from IS

Egypt court orders release of Mubarak sons pending retrial

Drone targets Qaeda suspects in crisis-hit Yemen

Saudi Arabia seeks greater American role in Middle East crises

Iraq army announces liberation of Diyala from ‘Islamic State’

Tunisia parliament delays confidence vote on new government

After 4 months of fighting, Kurds expel ‘Islamic State’ from Kobane

Libya warring factions meet in Geneva to resume peace talks

Assad: US idea to train rebels illusionary

Tunisia's Ennahda rejects Essid cabinet line-up

Alleged Algerian jihadist arrested in Morocco

UN Security Council to on Yemen crisis

Obama vows to maintain pressure on Qaeda in crisis-hit Yemen

Gaza announces plans to ready sea port for international travel

Barrage of rockets rains down on Syria capital

Egypt extends Sinai state of emergency by three months

Syria ambassador to UN to head government team in Moscow talks

Qatar court tells US family to decide on fate of alleged killer

Gunmen kidnap Libya deputy foreign minister from hotel room

Erdogan visits war-torn Somalia amid tight security

New violence as Egypt marks anniversary of 2011 revolt

Yemen Huthi rebels fire in air to disperse Sanaa protest

Gridlocked streets of Saudi capital turn quiet for day of mourning

Islamist websites confirm death of Ansar al-Sharia chief in Libya

World leaders head to Saudi Arabia to offer condolences

Iran parliament starts to draft law on nuclear enrichment hike

Mauritania prison siege ends with captives freed

Syria opposition demands 'radical democratic change'

Tunisia turns the page on political Islam