Saudis waking up to value of physical education for women
In a recent interview with CNBC, Lina Almaeena, the co-founder of Jeddah United Sports Club (JU), inferred that sports could enable Saudi women to break down many stereotypes and misconceptions.
Sports are also a mechanism for women to change policy and advance our rights. This week, we slowly but surely gained more ground when the Kingdom finally implemented a 2014 Royal Decree making physical education mandatory for girls in public schools from the start of the upcoming academic year. At the same time, the government has now made it legal for women’s gyms to secure an operation license from the state.
While these are both victories in their own right, they also represent larger social and cultural shifts that are expanding the role of women in the public sphere.
Saudi Arabia is known for its conservative traditions. Historically, conservatives — led by the clerical establishment — have viewed women’s participation in sports as something that undermines traditional gender roles and the integrity of the family unit. With respect to the former, conservative critiques focused on the masculinization of women; participation in athletics intruded into the public space, a male-dominated area, and required women to adopt male patterns of dress, such as pants. With regard to the latter, conservatives argued that participation in athletics would encourage a woman to willfully neglect her domestic responsibilities or cause physical injury that would “compromise her purity” (i.e. tear her hymen) making her “unsuitable” for marriage. For these and other reasons, women have long been officially barred from participating in sports, exercise, and physical education in the Kingdom.
Unofficially, Saudi women have participated in athletic activities for decades. At school, young girls play tag at recess while adults frequent walking tracks (such as the one located behind Tahlia Street in Jeddah, or the tree-lined paths criss-crossing Prince Sultan University in Riyadh). Women play basketball for private clubs (including Jeddah United). Saudis also set up women’s gyms, which circumnavigated legal restrictions by registering as hair salons — yes, hair salons. Health and fitness advocates also created platforms such as the Empowerment Hub to introduce a more holistic approach to female well-being.
While the government may have turned a blind eye to these activities, conservatives did not.
In the 1990s, for example, the clerical establishment pushed back hard against “hair salon” gyms, sparking a conservative grassroots public awareness campaign called “Let Her Get Fat” (an ironic title given the Kingdom’s obesity pandemic). Without a government crackdown, most of these institutions and activities persisted despite attempts to sabotage them.
Saudi Arabia’s current transformation is genuine and sustainable. Government policies are evolving to reflect, facilitate and institutionalize grassroots activity, rather than the other way around.
Fatimah S. Baeshen
Fast-forward to the 2010s and, I would argue, persistence created enough critical mass to create lasting change. During the first half of this decade, Saudi women have achieved several milestones: Sending two representatives to the London Olympics in 2012; the 2013 creation of a dedicated sports arena in Alkhobar, offering instruction in fitness and martial arts for women and girls; legislation sanctioning sports for girls in private schools that same year; and the 2014 Royal Decree mentioned earlier. Significantly, Princess Reema bint Bander Al-Saud was last year appointed vice president of women’s affairs at the General Sports Authority.
And these incremental strides for women in sports, were mirrored elsewhere in the public sphere: Working in the retail sector (2012); serving in the Shoura Council, the Kingdom’s top advisory body (2013); running and voting in municipal elections (2015); and taking leading positions in the Saudi stock exchange (2016) and Dammam’s King Fahd International Airport (2016). All of these advancements indicate a determination from the government to not only facilitate the growth of women’s public roles, but to institutionalize that effort.
Experts debate whether Saudi Arabia’s current transformation is genuine and sustainable. In my opinion, the strongest indicator that they are is that government policies are evolving to reflect, facilitate, and institutionalize grassroots activity, rather than the other way around.
Inside the Kingdom, this transformation is occurring via the percolation of ad hoc, grassroots activities into government, which has responded by adopting supportive policies. Although incremental, this process creates a feedback loop between government policies and grassroots initiatives that is strong enough to withstand conservative pressure — once implemented.
This is what happened when Saudi Arabia moved from a Thursday-Friday to a Friday-Saturday weekend; private businesses, particularly banks, began staying open on Thursdays in order to align the Kingdom’s workweek with international norms. This change gave way to a grassroots movement to change the weekend. The government responded by floating a trial balloon, announcing the possibility of change well before implementing it, to allow for further public debate so that, when the shift was finally made, it was anticipated and largely accepted by competing interest groups that may have opposed it, such as the religious establishment.
Policies that normalize a role for women in the public sphere are especially important if the Kingdom is to meet the stated economic goals of Vision 2030. This will not only require more robust female participation in the workforce, but a drastic reduction in government expenditures. In this regard, support for women’s athletics is more than just cosmetic; it will reduce the Kingdom’s ballooning health care budget by lowering incidents of lifestyle diseases stemming from physical inactivity — including diabetes and obesity — that are among the Kingdom’s greatest public health crises. At the same time, the government also recognizes that women’s progress has become the metric by which the rest of the world measures Saudi Arabia’s advancement as a nation.
For these reasons, I see this new legislation as a sign that more change, slow but seemingly steady, is coming. Perhaps the recent Royal Decree to review the guardianship system (which came about as a result of grassroots pressure and Saudi Arabia’s election to the UN women’s commission), will result in a similarly positive outcome.
• Fatimah S. Baeshen is a Saudi socioeconomic strategist. She is a director of the Arabia Foundation. She can be reached on Twitter @FatimahSBaeshen.
— This article was originally published by Arabia Foundation.