The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932. Its football federation was born in 1956. Yet, Saudi women, for the first time in their history, attended a soccer match in the Kingdom in 2018.
That’s a lot of missed decades.
But the catch-up race has started and not just in football. The attendance of Saudi women at a male sporting event constitutes no doubt a milestone that followed on the heels of the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, allowing various forms of entertainment, including cinema, theatre and music, and stripping the religious police of their right to carry out arrests.
Like an inexorable lava flow, the Saudi women’s run seems unstoppable — and there is no finish line. They will continue running long after they break the tape because there is so much they want to do but have been unable to.
This is especially true of sports. Mark the calendar: Friday 12 January 2018. That’s the day Saudi Arabia allowed women to enter a football stadium for the first time to watch a match, a truly remarkable step unheard of given the severe restrictions placed on them.
The first match women saw was between Al-Ahli and Al-Batin in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, followed the next day by Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad in the capital Riyadh. More than 9,000 women attended the two matches, fixtures of the 17th week in the Premier Saudi League. Alone or accompanied by their families, they sat in reserved seats in Jeddah’s Pearl Stadium and Riyadh’s King Fahd Stadium.
News reports set the scene: Women supporters, all wearing the traditional head-to-toe black abaya robe, arrived well ahead of kick-off in the Jeddah stadium, some in sunglasses and others with loose-fitting veils. The clubs offered special abayas in team colours.
Friday’s game was scheduled to kick off at 8pm but enthusiasm for the historic encounter began well before. Hours before the game, Saudi clubs were encouraging women to attend through tweets on social media.
Saudi Airlines announced free tickets for five families who want to travel between cities to watch the games.
The players apparently liked their new-found fans. “The women’s attendance has tremendously raised the performance of players,” said Al-Ahli’s Serbian coach.
Some 80 female medical doctors, paramedics and nurses were present to extend any required medical help to families. A number of women security guards were also present during the two matches to ensure the safety of families. They received the women at the entrance, sold them tickets and seated them on the 14,000 seats designated for families.
Although there were 21,000 men in the Riyadh stadium and almost 20,000 in Jeddah, there were no reports of harassment. Hooligans never appeared, no shops were gutted, no cars were overturned, no family had to lock up its daughters and no woman had to run for the hills for her life.
This is a sea change in Saudi society, deemed unthinkable just a few months ago. But to be sure, Saudi sports vis-à-vis women opened up a few years earlier. In the 2012 London Games, two women became the first female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in an Olympics. Although Sarah Attar crossed the finish line of the 800m sprint over half a minute behind her competitors, and fellow team member Wojdan Shaherkani lost her opening, elimination judo match to her Puerto Rican rival in just 82 seconds, the pair became history-makers with thousands in both audiences on their feet to applaud.
The historic presence of Shaherkani and Attar could scarcely have been less of a sporting contest, but the Saudi public was nonetheless awash in optimism about what their performance would mean for female athletics in the Kingdom. Others were less than joyous. Conservative Saudi religious clerics strongly opposed and issued rulings against Saudi women participating in spectator sports, maintaining it may lead to corrupt morals, loss of virginity and lesbianism. Attar’s participation in the Olympics was mentioned by only one Saudi paper — which was criticised for doing so.
Despite the severe backlash, at the 2016 Olympics, Saudi Arabia doubled the number of female athletes on its roster, sending four women to Rio. So it would seem that Attar and Shaherkani did set a precedent. To this day, they remain important models of what could be.
‘What could be’ has changed tenses to ‘what has been’: Saudi Arabia hosted its first international chess tournament (two years after the Kingdom’s grand mufti and top religious authority opined that Islam forbids chess as a form of gambling and a waste of time); named a princess, Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, as the first Saudi woman to hold a high-level post in what is essentially the Kingdom’s equivalent of a Sports Ministry, covering sporting activities for men and women; and started the New Year in style by holding the Saudi PSA Women’s Squash Masters in Riyadh, the first professional women’s squash tournament ever to take place in Saudi Arabia and the first World Series squash event of 2018, featuring the world’s top female stars.
The driving force behind these series of unprecedented reforms is Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman whose position as heir to the throne, defence minister and economic czar was cemented following last year’s purge of prominent family members, businessmen and officials.
The easing of social controls since last year is now testing Crown Prince Mohamed’s commitment to what he has termed “moderate” Islam versus the extremities of Salafism and Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia has not abandoned any part of its religiosity which seeks peace. “Saudi support for ultra-conservatism does not by definition call into question the Kingdom’s determination to fight violent radicalism and extremism,” writes James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. However, Prince Mohamed wants to find common ground between what Saudi clerics demand and what the modern age beckons. “Prince Mohamed’s moves more than ever forced the ultra-conservative religious establishment to endorse his moves in a bid to survive and retain some degree of influence rather than out of conviction,” adds Dorsey, author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
It’s one thing to watch sports, another to nurture top-notch athletes, and another to actually play sports. Integrating athletics into the daily lives of Saudi women can mitigate a serious health crisis for the female public at large. Inactivity is a dire threat to the health of Saudi women by the day-to-day restrictions imposed on them.
Nearly half of middle and upper class Saudi women are obese or overweight and suffer from diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Because Saudi Arabia does not allow women to practise sports in the public sphere and the introduction of private sports centres for women arouses criticism among religious conservatives, this ban on women’s sports and active lifestyle is the most devastating of any other restriction, because it impacts their health directly, which impacts everything else — their education, family lives and mental health.
As such, Prince Mohamed’s next target could be promoting female athletics through introducing physical education programmes in girls’ schools, establishing sports federations for women, and ensuring women have access to gyms and spaces to exercise.
As for elite athletes, Saudi Arabia can’t have any until it has sports programmes set up for girls in state schools. Without internal infrastructure promoting women in sports, women representing Saudi Arabia in international tournaments must train elsewhere. They must ironically leave the country they compete for.
So far though, at dizzying and courageous high speed, Saudi Arabia is jettisoning the Ice Age. Perhaps because it’s not a noxious issue, Prince Mohamed has chosen sports as one of his vehicles to introduce social and economic changes in his effort to take Saudi Arabia into the 21st century.
True, the changes are late in coming. But they have arrived and there is no turning back. It’s an inevitable, relentless march. And this improbable journey has proven that Saudi women and sports can mix.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly