Sporting News | Saudi Women May Soon See Athletic Opportunities


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Progress towards greater gender equality continues in Saudi Arabia. Last year, King Abdullah allowed the addition of physical education programs in private schools. 2012 saw the first Saudi female athletes competing in Olympic games. And now, the Shura Council has voted to expand athletic programs to public schools throughout the Kingdom. While Saudi women remain some of the most restricted in the world, their cause is gaining momentum.

Growing concerns over women's health are at the core of the movement. Increased heart disease, obesity and diabetes threaten Saudi women at much higher rates than their male counterparts. According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 33% of women likely suffer from obesity, and 25% are plagued by diabetes. Regular exercise through physical education regimens and after-school sporting opportunities could greatly offset these life-threatening conditions, according to doctors.

The Shura Council has little power in Saudi government, but the assembly fills an important gap between the people and lawmakers. The Council's recommendation will be forwarded to the education ministry. This department will have the final say. In recent years, high-power clerics have questioned the longstanding ban on female recreation, stating that the Qur'an does not explicitly oppose this activity.

Externally, Saudi Arabia was the subject of international pressure. Until the 2012 Summer Olympics, the Kingdom was the only country recognized by the International Olympic Committee to prohibit female participants. The London games saw two Saudi women competitors, Wojdan Ali Seraj and Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who competed in judo and track, respectively. The ladies' achievements were veiled, as the events were not televised in their mother country.

The makeup of the Shura Council is in itself indicative of the direction of the country. Last year, King Abdullah included 30 women on the board of 150 advisors. In the past, the Council had been exclusively male. But, the assembly's new power balance is not representative of wider Saudi society. Legally, women are unable to participate in business dealings, drive cars or even vote. Even so, Saudi women work in sales, education and now, law. Earlier this year, Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran was the first woman in the Kingdom to gain her lawyer's license.

However necessary, the implementation of female athletics could prove dubious. Even the discussion of expanding of women's athletics generated controversy from conservative Council members. If the education ministry approves wider sporting provisions, participants will abide by Sharia codes. According to these Islamic laws, traditional attire and female supervision will be mandated during sport practices and events.

The Council's endorsement is just one component of an increasingly progressive Saudi Arabia. Last August, King Abdullah took official action against domestic violence. The order provides victims with necessary medical treatment and levies serious punishments against culpable parties. By most data, Saudi Arabia is home to the most codified gender inequity in the world, and yet, developments continue to give hope to the women of the Kingdom.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Senior Correspondent: @MAndrewRansom

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Murder of the Equal Sex

In the Middle East and North Africa women rights are coming to the forefront as they begin their modern-day suffragette movement amidst the recent uprisings - now known as the “Arab Spring”.

Suffragette “derived from the word "suffrage", means the right to vote,” however; women across the Middle East are fighting for more than the right to vote, they want to be involved in the running of the country and they wanted to be treated as equal human beings while remaining cognizant of the inherent differences between men and women.

This struggle for equality that women in the Middle East are currently engaged in is reminiscent of the early British and American women's rights movement. Within each movement these brave women sought basic human rights which initially conflicted with the cultural and societal norms into which they were born. However, at the same time, these women did not seek to relinquish their relationship to these societies' but sought to achieve greater autonomy to enable them to participate as fully functioning members their societies.

As women in Saudi Arabia assert their civil rights through driving which is forbidden to women by Saudi Arabian law, women in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa are participating in similar acts of disobedience.  Prohibiting women from driving is an archaic interpretation of Qu'ranic law designed to keep women hidden from other men and society at large.

A consequence of this legislation is that it prevents a woman from removing themselves or their children from potentially dangerous situation should they find themselves married to an abuser.  They are also unable to transport themselves to and from work or to perform basic chores such as grocery shopping, etc.  Read more about this movement on the blog Saudi Jeans.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2011, Egyptian women participated in a “Million Woman March” aimed at reminding the nation that they should have a voice in its future. Nehad Abu El Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, expressed disappointment with the fact that the new prime minister’s cabinet includes only one woman. “If we're not involved in building the constitutional and legislative future of this country now, then when? Why do we see women, who were almost 50 percent of the protesters in Tahrir, not represented in decision-making rooms?”

In the case of the Egyptian Women's revolution some incidents of rape and harassment were reported but no loss of life. By contrast when Neda Agha Soltan was shot to death in the streets of Tehran two years ago after the rigged 2009 presidential elections of Iran, millions of people watched in horror as this young woman bled to death on the street amid mayhem and fleeing protesters.

Ironically, a few days short of the anniversary of Neda’s death, another senseless killing occurred. Haleh Sahabi, another Iranian humanitarian and democracy activist, died from wounds inflicted following her father’s funeral. Haleh, 54, was a member of Mothers for Peace and a campaigner for women’s rights.

Haleh was originally arrested on August 5, 2010 with numerous other activists. Released on a two-week pass to attend the funeral of her father, the police used this opportunity to incite a disturbance in which Haleh Sahabi was thrown to the ground, kicked then beaten to death.

Women have sacrificed selflessly throughout history. We have died in defense of children, family, principles and country. We have suffered under the tyranny of slavery, endured the unimaginable abuses of ruthless laws, fought to justify our worth within patriarchal systems, and been forced to be complicit in perpetuating this injustice through the sell of our daughters into sexual enslavement and domestic abuse.

Today's struggles for equality, a voice and participating role in determining our destiny is not new, but the fact that this revolution has found root in Middle Eastern societies bound by century old mores and customs, makes the bravery of these women more even more remarkable.

The struggle shall continue but in the meantime women around the world shall continue to suffer and die because of their sex.