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Uri Levy

Saudi women welcome: This week in Middle East football

Women are now allowed to attend football games in Saudi Arabia [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 January, 2018

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Women made history in Saudi Arabia this week, entering football stadia for the first time in the nation's history - but many fans stayed away, writes Uri Levy.
Friday January 12, 2018, will be remembered as an historic day in Middle Eastern football.

In a match between Al-Ahli Jeddah and Al-Batin at the King Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi women were attending their first football match ever.

It was also the first match in Saudi football with female stewards, as a "family stand" with 14,000 seats was inaugurated. On Saturday, a family stand was also opened in Riyadh's King Fahed Stadium ahead of the Saudi Clásico, between Al-Hilal and Ittihad.

Photos, tweets and videos spread all over social media and the story led almost every news broadcast. That this could finally happen in the strongest league in the region marks a serious step in terms of football culture in the Middle East.

The match itself ended with Al-Ahli's 5-0 hammering of Batin, pushing Al-Ahli closer to league leaders Al-Hilal.

In the other match, Al-Hilal and Ittihad were left with a 1-1 draw. The race for the Saudi title remains thrilling.

The Saudi FA hadn't chosen these matches for nothing. Adapting to major changes takes time, but the goal of the exercise was to make a statement of intent by opening the "family stands" for the games of country's three biggest clubs from the country's main footballing cities.

While the top of the Saudi league table remains tight, not many fans showed up. In Jeddah, just 23,898 fans - men, women and children - came to the match, while in Riyadh just 26,404 passed through the turnstiles of the 67,000-capacity mega-stadium.

The question is - why? Why at such an important moment for Saudi football culture, have so few fans supported the decision from the terraces? The answers are varied. It could be a matter of tradition, with sport inseparable from mainstream conservative Saudi life; it might be a form of protest by men regarding the entrance of their daughters, their wives or sisters.

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The move must be understood in context. It is part of a series of societal shifts in Saudi Arabia in the past year, along women being allowed to drive, to attend cinemas, etc.

These may seem like highly important changes for women in Saudi Arabia, but as mentioned, big changes take time.

While other countries in the region and beyond have embraced the sight of women in Saudi stadia, and celebrated the brilliant photos of female fans enjoying a football match for the first time in their lives, domestic criticism has erupted - and not only from men.

The road to change is long and full of hurdles not least within Saudi Arabia, but the Middle East in general.

Yet, seeing young girls such as Sarah Algashgari, a young student from Jeddah, who took a part in the organisation of the family stand in Jeddah, one cannot stay indifferent. The satisfaction, the excitement and the true sense of changing the present for a better future, is definitely here.

"It was a happiness I could not explain in words. I thought 'finally we no longer have to see it behind the screen, we can now go and cheer our teams and feel the excitement and spirit'. I was joyful to the extent I could not explain - because not only do I get to witness this historic event but I get to organise it," she said in a short interview with Shuaib Ahmed of Footynions.

"The limits for Saudi women dreams and hopes does not exist and is the future appears to be promising, inshallah!"

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here


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