Saudi Arabia builds stadium to accommodate women

Sau­di Ara­bia is build­ing its first sta­di­um espe­cial­ly designed to allow women who are cur­rent­ly barred from attend­ing soc­cer match­es because of the kingdom’s strict pub­lic gen­der seg­re­ga­tion to watch games.

The sta­di­um in the Red Sea port city of Jed­dah is sched­uled to be com­plet­ed in 2014 and will have pri­vate cab­ins and bal­conies to accom­mo­date female spec­ta­tors, accord­ing to Al Sharq, a state-owned news­pa­per.

“Sources close the sta­di­um said more than 15 per­cent of the facil­i­ty will be allo­cat­ed for fam­i­lies when the facil­i­ty is ful­ly com­plet­ed in 2014. Besides fam­i­lies, female jour­nal­ists and pho­tog­ra­phers will also be admit­ted into the sta­di­um and will be allo­cat­ed exclu­sive places away from male jour­nal­ists so they can cov­er local and inter­na­tion­al events,” Al Sharq said.

Sau­di puri­tan inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam pro­hibits unre­lat­ed men and women from min­gling in pub­lic. Sau­di Ara­bia refers to pub­lic areas for women or fam­i­lies as fam­i­ly areas in which men unac­com­pa­nied by a female rel­a­tive are barred from entry. Sim­i­lar­ly, women are denied access to areas where unac­com­pa­nied men con­gre­gate.

The build­ing of the sta­di­um comes two months after Sau­di Ara­bia in a bid to avoid being barred from the 2012 Lon­don Olympics agreed to send a token female eques­tri­an to the tour­na­ment to rep­re­sent a coun­try that effec­tive­ly dis­cour­ages women’s sports.

The deci­sion fol­lowed a warn­ing last year by Ani­ta DeFrantz, the chair of the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Committee’s Women and Sports Com­mis­sion, that Sau­di Ara­bia along­side Qatar and Brunei could be barred if they did not send for the first time at least one female ath­lete to the Lon­don Olympics.

An ear­li­er agree­ment by Qatar, the only oth­er coun­try whose indige­nous pop­u­la­tion are large­ly Wah­habis, adher­ents of the puri­tan inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam pre­dom­i­nant in Sau­di Ara­bia, to field a women’s team in Lon­don increased the pres­sure on the king­dom to fol­low suit.

Sau­di Arabia’s most like­ly female ath­lete is 18-year old equestri­enne Dal­ma Rush­di Mal­has who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Sin­ga­pore Youth Olympics. At the time, Ms. Mal­has was not offi­cial­ly del­e­gat­ed to com­pete in Sin­ga­pore on behalf of the king­dom.

Despite offi­cial dis­cour­age­ment women have increas­ing­ly been push­ing the enve­lope at times with the sup­port of more lib­er­al mem­bers of the rul­ing Al Saud fam­i­ly, The kingdom’s tooth­less Shu­ra or Advi­so­ry Coun­cil has issued reg­u­la­tions for women’s sports clubs, but con­ser­v­a­tive reli­gious forces often have the final say.

Nonethe­less the man­date grant­ed to a Span­ish con­sul­tan­cy last year to devel­op the kingdom’s first nation­al sports plan is exclu­sive­ly for men’s sports.

The push­ing of the enve­lope comes as women are prov­ing to be the most vis­i­ble in chal­leng­ing the kingdom’s gen­der apartheid against the back­drop of sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent. Man­al al-Sharif was detained in May for nine days after she video­taped her­self flout­ing the rules by get­ting behind a steer­ing wheel and dri­ving. She was released only after sign­ing a state­ment promis­ing a that she would stop agi­tat­ing for women’s rights.

Dis­crep­an­cy about women’s sports is rein­forced by the fact that phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion class­es are banned in state-run Sau­di girl’s schools Women’s games and marathons are often can­celled when more con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers of the cler­gy gets wind of them.

The issue of women’s sport has at time sparked sharp debate with cler­ics con­demn­ing it as cor­rupt­ing and satan­ic and charg­ing that it spreads deca­dence. Cler­ics warned that run­ning and jump­ing can dam­age a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of get­ting mar­ried. In defi­ance, women have qui­et­ly been estab­lish­ing soc­cer and oth­er sports teams using exten­sions of hos­pi­tals and health clubs as their base.

For his part, Sau­di King Abdul­lah has made moves to enhance women’s rights. Last Sep­tem­ber, women were grant­ed the right to vote, stand for elec­tion in local elec­tions and join the advi­so­ry Shu­ra coun­cil.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.