Saudi Arabia has decided to set up a ministerial committee to reconsider lifting the ban on physical exercise for women, by allowing women-only sports clubs, the country’s Al Watan daily newspaper reported. The development comes amidst opposition from the kingdom’s religious conservatives.
The country made great progress in women’s education when it unveiled the $5.3 billion Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) in 2011. King Abdullah also announced last year that women could vote in municipal elections, the country’s only public polls.
“It may be baby steps on the part of the government, but for the women of Saudi Arabia it is a huge leap,” Farah Fahim, a student based in Riyadh told Arabian Gazette. “Unfortunately with regard to the physical health of women, progress is yet to be made.”
Steeped in culture
There was huge uproar in 2007 when a member of the top clerical body said that girls should not play sports less they lose their virginity by tearing their hymens. State-run girls schools are banned from doing sports, but private girls schools are allowed to offer sports classes.
A senior official from the General Presidency of Youth Welfare, the top Saudi sporting body, announced that the committee was formed to end the “chaos” surrounding women’s sports clubs which are unregulated. “The mission of the committee is focused on building a system for these clubs,” Zamil was quoted as saying by Al Watan.
Powerful Saudi clerics are against women playing sports or doing physical exercise, reducing female gyms to expensive ‘health centres’.
“In Saudi Arabia, women’s gyms are labeled as ‘health centers’. Women’s physical health is the least of the government’s worry,” Fathima Wadood, a Saudi-born British national and self-proclaimed women’s rights activist, told Arabian Gazette. “The main reason is that they want to get their feelers into the so-called women’s club. Until now, they have no idea what goes on inside the walls of these ‘health centers,’ thereby on the pretense of regulation, they are trying to moderate the female intellect, again!”
Women in the Gulf kingdom are barred from driving and need the permission of a close male relative to work, travel or open a bank account. Reports coming from Red Sea city of Jeddah suggest a Saudi man divorced his wife because she travelled to Riyadh without seeking his approval and attended a business meeting.
Saudi Arabia’s only female deputy minister, Noura al-Fayez, has written to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying the government is taking serious steps to introduce physical education at girls’ state schools.