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The New Arab

Saudi girls finally allowed to learn sports at school

Saudi Arabia imposes many restrictions on women [AFP]

Date of publication: 12 July, 2017

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Schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia will soon be able to participate in physical education classes, a long-awaited reform in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

Saudi public schools will begin offering physical education for girls in the coming academic year, the education ministry announced this week.

Saudi conservatives consider physical education for women immodest. It is not mandatory and has not been offered in most public schools.

Lina al-Maeena, a member of the advisory Shura Council who founded the kingdom's first female sports club, basketball team Jeddah United, described the long-awaited reform in the Islamic kingdom as "historic".

"Sports is empowerment," she said, according to Reuters.

Saudi Arabia, which applies a strict form of Sunni Islam, imposes many restrictions on women.

It is the only country where they are not allowed to drive. When in public, women in Saudi Arabia are expected to cover from head to toe.

Saudi women are also not permitted to marry, travel, or open a bank account without the express permission of a male guardian, and they are often unable to access healthcare without male consent.

However, the ultra-conservative kingdom is swaying towards relaxing some rules on women.

The Shura Council approved the introduction of physical education for girls in 2014, but the decision was never implemented as it faced opposition from clerics who decried it as "Westernisation".

Earlier this year, the council opened the door to licensing women's gyms, which were previously in legal limbo.

However, the sports on offer were restricted to individual activities like running and swimming, rather than team sports like football and basketball - presumably to avoid any overly zealous manifestations of esprit de corps.

The drive is being spearheaded by prominent women's advocate Princess Reema bint Bandar al Saud, vice president for women's affairs at the General Authority of Sports.

Critics of Princess Reema suggest that her efforts towards women's liberation are little more than a flimsy dressing on a gaping wound.

Among other attention grabbing achievements, she has led a team of Saudi women to the base camp at Everest, and is a vocal proponent of women's rights – albeit adopting a softly softly approach to reform.

The women's gym initiative is one such example of gradual change, and behind it lies a genuine health concern.

The government has appointed Princess Reema to lead a women's section of the national General Sports Authority.

The kingdom sent two female athletes to the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and four to the 2016 games.

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