Saudi Women Get to Be Fans on the Stands With New Soccer Stadium
Saudi Arabia is building its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games.
The stadium in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah is scheduled to be completed in 2014 and will have private cabins and balconies to accommodate female spectators, according to Al Sharq, a state-owned newspaper.
“Sources close the stadium said more than 15 percent of the facility will be allocated for families when the facility is fully completed in 2014. Besides families, female journalists and photographers will also be admitted into the stadium and will be allocated exclusive places away from male journalists so they can cover local and international events,” Al Sharq said.
Saudi puritan interpretation of Islam prohibits unrelated men and women from mingling in public. Saudi Arabia refers to public areas for women or families as family areas in which men unaccompanied by a female relative are barred from entry. Similarly, women are denied access to areas where unaccompanied men congregate.
The building of the stadium comes two months after Saudi Arabia in a bid to avoid being barred from the 2012 London Olympics agreed to send a token female equestrian to the tournament to represent a country that effectively discourages women’s sports.
The decision followed a warning last year by Anita DeFrantz, the chair of the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sports Commission, that Saudi Arabia alongside Qatar and Brunei could be barred if they did not send for the first time at least one female athlete to the London Olympics.
An earlier agreement by Qatar, the only other country whose indigenous population are largely Wahhabis, adherents of the puritan interpretation of Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia, to field a women’s team in London increased the pressure on the kingdom to follow suit.
Saudi Arabia’s most likely female athlete is 18-year old equestrienne Dalma Rushdi Malhas who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics. At the time, Ms. Malhas was not officially delegated to compete in Singapore on behalf of the kingdom.
Despite official discouragement women have increasingly been pushing the envelope at times with the support of more liberal members of the ruling Al Saud family, The kingdom’s toothless Shura or Advisory Council has issued regulations for women’s sports clubs, but conservative religious forces often have the final say.
Nonetheless the mandate granted to a Spanish consultancy last year to develop the kingdom’s first national sports plan is exclusively for men’s sports.
The pushing of the envelope comes as women are proving to be the most visible in challenging the kingdom’s gender apartheid against the backdrop of simmering discontent. Manal al-Sharif was detained in May for nine days after she videotaped herself flouting the rules by getting behind a steering wheel and driving. She was released only after signing a statement promising a that she would stop agitating for women’s rights.
Discrepancy about women’s sports is reinforced by the fact that physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools Women’s games and marathons are often cancelled when more conservative members of the clergy gets wind of them.
The issue of women’s sport has at time sparked sharp debate with clerics condemning it as corrupting and satanic and charging that it spreads decadence. Clerics warned that running and jumping can damage a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of getting married. In defiance, women have quietly been establishing soccer and other sports teams using extensions of hospitals and health clubs as their base.
For his part, Saudi King Abdullah has made moves to enhance women’s rights. Last September, women were granted the right to vote, stand for election in local elections and join the advisory Shura council.
- Saudi Condemned for Women’s Sport Restrictions – HRW JAMES M. DORSEY: Saudi accused of kowtowing to conservative Muslim clerics who claim female sports are "steps of the devil" - Human Rights Watch....
- Saudi Women at Olympics: A Major Breakthrough MAHA AKEEL, CGNEWS: The participation of two Saudi women at the Olympic Games will provide inspiration and encouragement for girls throughout the Kingdom...
- One Woman Team: Saudi Evades Olympic Ban. But Only Just. JAMES M. DORSEY: It's bound to cause a storm in the Kingdom but Malhas's Olympic participation will help authorities avoid diplomatic embarrassment. ...
- Saudi Women Campaign for Right to Play Soccer JAMES M. DORSEY: Some clerics condemn women’s sport as corrupting, they also warn running and jumping can damage a woman's hymen......
- U-Turn: KSA to Support Women Olympiads CROSSROADS ARABIA: In March Saudi announced it would support women athletes. In April it reversed its position. Now June, and it appears female athletes will receive support....
- ‘Stand Up to IOC on Women’ Says Saudi Cleric EMAN AL NAFJAN: Saudi conservatives appear to be spoiling for a fight with the IOC over women's participation in sport. ...
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is the progeny of James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Soccer in the Middle East and North Africa is played as much on as off the pitch. Stadiums are a symbol of the battle for political freedom; economic opportunity; ethnic, religious and national identity; and gender rights. Alongside the mosque, the stadium was until the Arab revolt erupted in late 2010 the only alternative public space for venting pent-up anger and frustration. Soccer has its own unique thrill – a high-stakes game of cat and mouse between militants and security forces and a struggle for a trophy grander than the FIFA World Cup: the future of a region.