In a country where women taking part in exercise is still seen as a taboo. The decision to allow girls to play sports in public schools is significant. Some of the kingdom’s ultra conservatives shun the concept of women’s exercise as “immodest” and say it blurs gender lines.
The Education Ministry said the decision to introduce sports for girls was in line with the country’s sweeping Vision 2030 plan, a wide-reaching government plan to overhaul society and the economy. It is being spearheaded by the kingdom’s young heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The plan specifically calls for encouraging the participation of all citizens in sports and athletic activities. It says 13 per cent of the Saudi population exercises once a week. The government aims to bump that up to 40 per cent and raise life expectancy from 74 years to 80 years.
The permission to allow girls in public schools access to physical education was preceded by years of demands from women across the kingdom for greater rights and access to sports.
The physical education classes will gradually be introduced and will be in accordance with Shariah regulations, the Education Ministry said.
One Saudi activist questioned whether this implied that girls will have to seek permission of their male guardians, such as a father, before they play sports. It was also unclear whether the classes were mandatory or considered an extracurricular.
It was only recently that women were allowed to participate in Saudi Arabia’s Olympic team during the 2012 London games. Four years ago the kingdom finally approved sports for girls in private schools.
Despite the recent improvements in gender equality, women are still restricted in many areas. They are still banned from driving and must seek the permission of a male guardian to travel abroad or obtain a passport. This restrictive male guardianship rules allow men to hugely influence a women’s life in Saudi Arabia.
Women are not allowed to jog or exercise in public spaces except for a few upscale gated compounds where foreigners live and select neighbourhoods. They are also banned form attending sporting matches in the country’s male-only stadiums.
Even though women are denied permission to participate in fitness, there are women that are able to afford the luxury of joining private sports clubs that have been emerging over the years. Saudi Arabia has approved some licences for female-only gyms, but membership costs are beyond the reach of many.
A new female-only university in Riyadh, has a large gym, outdoor soccer pitches, running tracks and indoor swimming pools. But despite the facilities, a proposal for sports education colleges that would train women on how to teach fitness and well-being were denied by the top consultative body, the Shura Council.