The Saudi Ministry of Education is investigating six private schools for girls on charges of breaking the law. The six schools have participated in sports competitions for girl students, thus violating Saudi laws which prohibit girls from engaging in sports.
I am willing to grant that Saudi laws would forbid girls to attend sporting events in stadiums, because crowdedness would be hard to segregate girls from boys. I am also willing to grant that Saudi laws would prohibit girls from engaging in sports in mixed-sex areas, in case people with perverted would be aroused by the sight of girls running chasing a ball or engaging in track and field sports. But what I don’t get is that girls cannot play sports in the privacy of their own schools, completely away from men.
The six Saudi schools are now in trouble, because the sporting events have been going on for years now, unbeknown to the public at large. The sports facilities and the physical education classes available in private schools went under the radar of the authorities and public opinion for years, until the managers of these schools pushed their luck and organised an ill-fated contest.
Girls go to private schools in Saudi Arabia in order to escape from the “oppression” of government schools, but now their secret has been found out and they are said to have violated the law.
In Saudi Arabia, there is a true battle taking place between the narrow-minded conservatives who see girls and women as an unmitigated menace to society and the broadminded people who, within reason, want Saudi society, girls and boys, to have a life.
Saudi girls have gone to schools and universities. They have gone to work, privately or in government jobs. They even pursued their education abroad. All of these are battles that Saudi women have fought and won, with the support of fathers and brothers who do not want women to be locked at home, utterly dependent on the tender mercies of men.
Women are gaining new ground everyday in Saudi Arabia. But the battle is not easy and gains are not irreversible. The conservative background of the Saudi state limits its scope of action. And the ground that the conservative culture in Saudi Arabia has won at the time the state was born is not going to go away. Conversely, ground the liberal culture in Egypt has won during the heyday of liberal nationalism is not going to go away.
Egyptians may show symptoms of conservative thinking, but liberalism with its enduring legacy will remain a part and parcel of the Egyptian national psyche.