Saudi Arabia — Human Rights Watch condemns Saudi restriction of women’s sports

Inter­na­tion­al human rights group Human Rights Watch has accused Sau­di Ara­bia of kow­tow­ing to asser­tions by the country’s pow­er­ful con­ser­v­a­tive Mus­lim cler­ics that female sports con­sti­tute “steps of the dev­il” that will encour­age immoral­i­ty and reduce women’s chances of meet­ing the require­ments for mar­riage.

The Human Rights Watch charges con­tained in a new report enti­tled “’Steps of the Dev­il’ comes on the heels of the king­dom back­track­ing on a plan to build 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 planned sta­di­um was sup­posed to open in 2014.

The report urged the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee to require Sau­di Ara­bia to legal­ize women’s sports as a con­di­tion for its par­tic­i­pa­tion in Olympic games.

“The glar­ing absence of a Sau­di female ath­lete at the Olympics can­not go on much longer,” Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke, the report’s prin­ci­ple author, said in a pre­sen­ta­tion of the report. ”We have lis­tened to Sau­di promis­es for decades. This is not good enough.”

IOC spokesman Mark Adams in an emailed response to the call said that per­sua­sion had proven to be “more effec­tive. We’ve already seen them send a woman ath­lete to the Youth Olympic games so we are con­fi­dent that we will make progress.”

The Human Rights call fol­lows 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 Olympic games.

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

Sau­di women despite offi­cial dis­cour­age­ment have in recent years 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 in whether they are imple­ment­ed or not.

In a sign that efforts to allow and encour­age women’s sports are at best hap­haz­ard and sup­port­ed only by more lib­er­al ele­ments in the gov­ern­ment, the king­dom last year hired a con­sul­tant to devel­op its first nation­al sports plan — for men only. There is no legal ban in on women’s sports in Sau­di Ara­bia where the bar­ri­ers for women are root­ed in tra­di­tion and the kingdom’s puri­tan inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam­ic law.

“Nobody is say­ing com­plete­ly ‘no’ to us,” Asso­ci­at­ed Press quot­ed Reem Abdul­lah, the 33-year old founder, coach and strik­er of pri­vate women’s soc­cer team Jed­dah King’s Unit­ed who is a leader in the cam­paign to allow women to par­tic­i­pate in sports and com­pete inter­na­tion­al­ly as say­ing. “As long as there are no men around and our clothes are prop­er­ly Islam­ic, there should be no prob­lem,” she said.

The push­ing of the enve­lope comes as women are increas­ing­ly chal­leng­ing oth­er aspects of the kingdom’s gen­der apartheid against the back­drop of sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent in Sau­di soci­ety over a host of issues.

Man­al al-Sharif was detained in May of last year for nine days after she video­taped her­self flout­ing the ban on women dri­ving by get­ting behind a steer­ing wheel and dri­ving. She was released only after sign­ing a state­ment promis­ing that she would stop agi­tat­ing for women’s rights.

A group of women launched ear­li­er this year a legal chal­lenge to the ban assert­ing that it had no base in Islam­ic law.

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.

Women respond­ed to the clos­ing of pri­vate gyms for women in 2009 with a protest cam­paign under the slo­gan ‘Let her get fat.’ The gov­ern­ment has since allowed the re-open­ing of health clubs for women but these are often too expen­sive for many women and don’t offer a full range of sports activ­i­ties.

Oppo­si­tion to women’s sports is rein­forced by the fact that phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion class­es are banned in state-run Sau­di girl’s schools. Pub­lic sports facil­i­ties are exclu­sive­ly for men and sports asso­ci­a­tions offer com­pe­ti­tions and sup­port for ath­letes in inter­na­tion­al com­pe­ti­tions only to men.

The issue of women’s sport has at time sparked sharp debate with con­ser­v­a­tive cler­ics con­demn­ing it as cor­rupt­ing and satan­ic and charg­ing that it spreads deca­dence. Con­ser­v­a­tive cler­ics have warned that run­ning and jump­ing can dam­age a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of get­ting mar­ried.

One group of reli­gious schol­ars argued that swim­ming, soc­cer and bas­ket­ball were too like­ly to reveal “pri­vate parts,” which includes large areas of the body. Anoth­er reli­gious schol­ar said it could lead to “min­gling with men.”

To be fair, less con­ser­v­a­tive cler­ics have come out in favor of women’s sports as well as less restric­tions on women. In addi­tion, the new­ly appoint­ed head of the kingdom’s reli­gious vig­i­lantes is report­ed to favor relax­ation of the ban on the mix­ing of the sex­es.

In defi­ance of the obsta­cles to their right to engage in sports, women have in recent years qui­et­ly been estab­lish­ing soc­cer and oth­er sports teams using exten­sions of hos­pi­tals and health clubs as their base.

The cler­ics “say it’s too mas­cu­line or too aggres­sive or not real­ly fem­i­nine,” Lina Almaeena, a Sau­di woman who plays on a pri­vate bas­ket­ball team called Jed­dah Unit­ed told the Los Ange­les Times.

“We will watch the Lon­don Olympics and we will cheer for our men com­pet­ing there, hop­ing that some­day we can root for our women as well,” Ms. Abdul­lah said. “When Sau­di women get a chance to com­pete for their coun­try, they will raise the flag so high. Women can achieve a lot, because we are very tal­ent­ed and we are crazy about sports.”

Ms. Abdul­lah estab­lished King’s Unit­ed as the kingdom’s first female soc­cer team in 2006. Her exam­ple has since been fol­lowed in oth­er cities, includ­ing Riyadh and Dammam. Two years lat­er sev­en female teams played in the first ever nation­al tour­na­ment as part a clan­des­tine and seg­re­gat­ed women’s league.

Mr. Wilcke said that despite the appar­ent lack of real polit­i­cal will to encour­age women’s sports it “is very achiev­able. Gov­ern­ment cler­ics are say­ing, ‘We should do this.’ Even if they take small steps, that still has the poten­tial to alter lives of women who get out of the house, meet oth­er women — every bit helps.”

Mr. Wilcke said atti­tudes were like­ly to change because of the kingdom’s young pop­u­la­tion which is like­ly to favour more lib­er­al approach­es.

Expec­ta­tions that 18-year old equestri­enne Dal­ma Rush­di Mal­has who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Sin­ga­pore Youth Olympics, the sports event IOC spokesman Adams was refer­ring to, would be the first Sau­di ath­lete to com­pete at an Olympic games were dashed recent­ly when the all-men Sau­di team recent­ly qual­i­fied for this year’s Lon­don Olympics jump­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

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.