Team sports such as football are rare opportunities for Saudi girls.
A girl’s school in Saudi Arabia has defied a ban on sport for girls by letting pupils play basketball. This comes after Human Rights Watch has claimed that women’s limited access to sport was contributing to rising obesity in the country.
Under the Kingdom’s strict Islamic legal system, girls are not allowed to play sports at state-run schools, although some private girls’ schools have sports programmes. Powerful Saudi clerics have also issued religious rulings against female participation in sports.
Sports minister Prince Nawwaf al-Faisal, who is also the head of the Saudi National Olympic Committee, told Al-Watan recently that the kingdom will not send female athletes to participate in the London Olympics. Like Qatar and Brunei, Saudi Arabia has never had a female athlete compete in the Olympics. However, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars women from competitive sports in general.
There is nothing in the Qur’an that forbids Muslim women from exercising, but in conservative Muslim countries women are often banned from exercising uncovered, and from having physical contact with men.
Besides facing discrimination in schools and competitive sports, Saudi women also encounter obstacles when exercising for their health or playing team sports for fun. In 2009, the kingdom announced a ban on licensing gyms for women, and the government went as far as closing established women’s gyms.
In 2009, Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, who sits on the official Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, said the ‘movement and jumping’ needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens. This might give the appearance that they had lost their virginity.
In Saudi Arabia, women must also have the permission of a male ‘guardian’, usually the closest male relative, to travel, work and have elective surgery. They are also banned from driving. The country’s religious police, the mutawwa’in, often subject women to harassment and physical punishment if they break any of these laws.
These laws, together with cultural and religious expectations, effectively limit women to a sedentary lifestyle – and this has contributed to rising obesity among Saudi women.
Forty-five per cent of middle-aged Saudi women are obese, according to a 2010 study conducted by the Saudi Diabetes and Endocrinology Society. The study showed that a number of factors have contributed to the spread of obesity among Saudis, one of them being the lack of physical activity. The prevalence of obesity among women was found to be far greater than among men.
In February, Human Rights Watch published a report, Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, on the systematic discrimination against women in sport in Saudi Arabia, and the impact this has had on rates of obesity and diabetes, especially among women and girls.
Although Saudi Arabia has signed treaties that recognise the rights of women and girls to physical education, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Human Rights Watch found that in practice women are systematically excluded from sport and exercise.
The report found that while there are plans to improve access to sport in girls’ schools, there are few options for staying fit for women: the few health clubs that have sports or fitness equipment can be prohibitively expensive, while team sports for women are almost non-existent.
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