Saudi women campaign for recognition of right to play soccer

August 11, 2011

Two Saudi women have established a women’s soccer and basketball team in the port city of Jeddah in a bid to persuade the government to allow and support women’s right to engage in competitive sports in a country that officially bans women from competitive sports.

In a rare airing of debate on the issue, soccer team captain Rima Abdallah and basketball player Hadir Sadqa appeared on a Saudi television sports program risking a confrontation with authorities that severely curtail women’s rights, according to a transcript of the program released by Washington-based Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI).

Their battle highlights the soccer pitch as a battlefield for women’s rights across the Middle East and North Africa, a part of the world where resistance to gender equality and women’s exertions in sports is deeply rooted.
Women soccer players confront the toughest obstacles in Saudi Arabia, ruled by one of Islam’s most puritanical sects. Physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools and female athletes are not allowed to participate in the Olympics. Women’s games and marathons are often cancelled when the clergy gets wind of them.

Some clerics condemn women’s sports as corrupting and satanic and charge that it spreads decadence. They warn that running and jumping can damage a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of getting married. In defiance, women have quietly been established soccer and other sports teams with the backing of more liberal members of the ruling Al Saud family as extensions of hospitals and health clubs. The International Olympic Committee has threatened Saudi Arabia with suspension if it does not create frameworks for women’s sports.

“When we first appeared in public, we were attacked. One of the most vehement attacks against me was during a Friday sermon. The entire sermon was about Rima Abdallah as if I were pushing Saudi women towards promiscuity, or something,” Ms. Abdallah said. Saudi authorities looked the other way as long as Ms. Abdallah and Sadqa and their team mates played in secret within the confines of their walled homes or on an out-of the way sports field. Their appearance on television however is sparking renewed debate about women’s rights to engage in sports and could put them on a collision course with conservatives who appear to have gained ground as a result of fears that the Arab popular revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa could spread to Saudi Arabia.

The government’s recent upholding of a ban on women driving hardly bodes well for women wanting to play soccer and defend goal posts. A Saudi woman, Manal al-Sharif, was jailed for nine days in May for defying the ban on driving in the eastern town of Khobar.
Commenting on Ms. Abdullah and Sadqa’s campaign to achieve recognition and secure funding, Abdel Rahman al-Azdi quipped on the website of Al Arabiya: “What is happening to you, women of Saudi Arabia? You want to have the same lifestyle as men, something that is not appropriate for you? In Allah’s name, all that is left is that you will request to be tank drivers and pilots.”

Ms. Abdallah said the idea for their soccer team, Kings United, emerged from their playing the game as a pastime.
“We used to play soccer, and the girls were good at it. At first, we treated it as a hobby, and we would play together in our spare time. During these sessions with my friends, I realized that there was a cadre which it would be a shame to waste, as long as this could be made official and the girls could play at a young age. We decided to tackle this matter head-on and devote ourselves to it, investing all our energies into filling the void in our lives with a hobby that we love. We decided to start training three times a week, each session two or three hours long,” Ms Abdallah said.

“At first we would play in closed areas behind fences, so nobody would know. At some point, I realized that this must be developed, so I turned to the media to make the authorities see that there are women who have the right to represent the country one day, in a manner pleasing to Allah, in keeping with our traditions and the Shari’a. We kept on playing this way. We paid all the expenses out of our own pockets. We did not have our own soccer fields, so we had to rent them. We looked only for secluded soccer fields, so that men would not go there,” Ms. Abdallah said.
To adhere with Saudi rules that grant men virtual custody over their women, Ms. Abdallah said players were only admitted to the team’s training if they had been granted permission by male members of their family.
“Everything of course will be according to religious rules, modesty and accepted social customs in the kingdom” Ms. Abdullah said. “When it all began, I drew up a document, for any girl who wanted to join Kings United. She had to get her guardian to sign that he had no objection to his girl being a player in the club. That way, I absolved myself of responsibility and protected myself.”
Ms. Sadqa, captain of basketball team Jeddah United said a company sponsored her team and decided their appropriate sportswear. Saudi women are obliged to be fully covered in public. “We dress according to the nature of the audience and of the rival team. Sometimes we wear long pants and cover our heads during the games,” she said.

Ms. Abdullah said the promotion of women’s sports was not only an issue of women’s rights but also one public health. “The women of Saudi Arabia are the most obese in the world and encouraging sport is likely to help in reducing the phenomenon. But beyond that, there is no reason why the women of the kingdom should not represent the Saudi nation in exactly the same way as the men do,” she said.
“94% of Saudi women suffer from diabetes. They tell us there are gyms where women can go, but not every Saudi woman can afford to pay 5,000 ($1,300) or 10,000 ($2,600) riyals in order to train with equipment … I hope with all my heart that one day, I will participate [in a soccer tournament] and raise my country’s flag, in a manner pleasing to Allah. There are Arab women’s teams in which they all play with hijabs and long clothing, which fully covers the body, but does not affect their performance on the field,” Ms. Abdallah said.

Ms. Abdallah suggested that the team’s prospects were limited not only because of government and conservative resistance to the notion of women’s sports but also because of lack of support by world soccer body FIFA. She said FIFA’s failure to recognize the women’s team had reinforced a decision by the Saudi football association to ban them from participating in a women’s soccer tournament last year in neighbouring Bahrain.
One reason FIFA has steered clear of the Saudi women’s teams is likely mounting problems the organization has with a minority of Muslim players who demand the right to wear the hijab, an Islamic hair dress that covers women’s hair, ears and neck. The ban led in May to the disqualification of Iran for the 2012 London Olympics after the team appeared on the pitch for a match against Jordan wearing the hijab. FIFA bans the wearing of religious and political symbols. The ban was lifted earlier this month after Iran in a meeting with FIFA president Sepp Blatter agreed to replace the hijab with a cap. James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer