DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it will grant girls in public schools access to physical education, a decision that comes after years of calls by women across the kingdom demanding greater rights and access to sports.
The Education Ministry said it will introduce the physical education classes “gradually” and “in accordance with (Islamic) Shariah regulations.”
At least one Saudi activist took to Twitter questioning whether this implied that girls will be required to seek the permission of their male guardians, such as a father, before they can play sports. It was also unclear if the classes would be extracurricular or mandatory.
The decision to allow girls to play sports in public schools is significant in Saudi Arabia because women taking part in exercise is still seen as a taboo. Some of the kingdom’s ultraconservatives shun the concept of women’s exercise as “immodest” and say it blurs gender lines.
It was only four years ago that the kingdom formally approved sports for girls in private schools. Women first participated in Saudi Arabia’s Olympic team during the 2012 London games.
Despite incremental openings for Saudi women, tight restrictions remain in place. Women are banned from driving and must seek the permission of a male guardian to travel abroad or obtain a passport. Restrictive male guardianship rules give men, usually the father or husband, huge sway over a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia.
The move to grant girls access to sports comes after years of campaigning by women’s rights activists, who have led calls to end male guardianship rules and lift the ban on women driving.
Outside of a few upscale gated compounds where foreigners live and select neighborhoods, women do not jog or exercise in public spaces, and they are banned from attending sporting matches in the country’s male-only stadiums.
Women in Saudi Arabia must wear loose flowing robes known as “abayas” in public, and most also cover their hair and face with black veils.
Access to sports has largely been a luxury for those women who can afford it and whose families permit it. A handful of private sports clubs have emerged over the years, allowing some women to join in female basketball leagues. In recent years Saudi Arabia has approved some licenses for female-only gyms, but membership costs are beyond the reach of many.
A new, sprawling female-only university in the capital, Riyadh, has a large gym, outdoor soccer pitches, running tracks and indoor swimming pools. Despite such facilities, the country’s top consultative body, the Shura Council, rejected a proposal earlier this year to establish sports education colleges that would train women in how to teach fitness and well-being, such as physical education courses in schools.
Saudi Arabia implements strict gender segregation rules that often require women to sit in “family only” sections of restaurants and cafes, or to be banned entirely from establishments where segregated seating is unavailable. Boys and girls are segregated in schools and university to prevent unrelated males and females from mixing.
The Education Ministry said the decision to introduce sports for girls was in line with the country’s sweeping Vision 2030 plan , a wide-reaching government plan to overhaul society and the economy. It is being spearheaded by the kingdom’s young heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The plan specifically calls for encouraging the participation of all citizens in sports and athletic activities. It says 13 percent of the Saudi population exercises once a week. The government aims to bump that up to 40 percent and raise life expectancy from 74 years to 80 years.
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