LONDON: They were small steps for thousands of women in Saudi Arabia last weekend but major strides for womenkind as they entered stadiums to watch a professional football match for the first time in the country’s history. Najat Muhammad was one.
The 25 year-old grew up in Jeddah and remembers clearly the feeling at having to stay at home while her father and brother went to the stadium to watch Al-Ahli, one of the biggest teams in Saudi Arabia.
“I could never understand that,” she told Arab News.
“It was so frustrating and I had to watch on television.”
She never knew what it was like to see a real live game of football and neither did any of her female compatriots.
All that changed on Friday. The Al-Ahli fanatic was among a bumper crowd of 25,000 to watch the three-time Saudi Arabian champions thrash Al-Batin 5-0. It was an attendance five times more than the Jeddah club’s previous home league game, more even than the derby against bitter local rivals Al-Ittihad.
Never had a domestic game in the Kingdom attracted so much attention from around the world with reports from all major international outlets.
“The feedback from all parties has been wonderful,” said Abdulrahman Alqudaib, General Manager of Operations and Events at the General Sports Authority and in charge of the stadiums in the country.
“I can say that it was a very successful start. Everything was normal. It was good to see many families and it was a positive start.”
The women were there before kick-off lining up outside Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City Stadium to be greeted by dozens of ushers, of the same gender that been hired by Al-Ahli to show the new visitors to special family sections.
Sarah Algashgari was one of this mini-army hired by the club to help the new spectators adapt to an unfamiliar environment.
“They advertised that they needed Saudi girls to organize the historic event,” said the 18 year-old.
“So I didn’t hesitate to contact them and they replied to me very quickly.”
The women, wearing traditional abayas but with a green scarf of Al-Ahli draped round necks, were ready to watch their first ever professional football match.
“The atmosphere was amazing,” added Algashgari.
“Al Ahli kept scoring and were outstanding and that got the people even more excited. Not only are they finally getting to attend a live football match but they can cheer a winning team.”
They cheered and cheered and cheered, perhaps for more than just the goals but just for the delight of finally being there.
“It was better even than I expected,” Muhammad said.
“The stadium is so big and the feeling when we are all supporting the team together and cheering the goals is something I will never forget. I thought I never would get the chance to be here and watch my team. It was amazing.”
It was all down to a decision made in October by Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The long standing ban on women watching football would end in January and driving in June. On the same day that Al-Ahli were thrilling 25,000 fans, a first ever car showroom aimed at females also opened.
That was Friday. On Saturday Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad met in Riyadh, a massive game even in normal times, and drew 1-1. Al-Ittihad spent the days leading up to the clash busy on social media, tweeting an image of a woman’s face painted in the famous club color of gold.
“Ittihad fans, male and female, are the support of this club, and success is not complete without them coming together to serve this historic entity,” the club tweeted. “With you, the scene is complete.”
Fans followed suit on Twitter. Women who were going to games and those who were not were tweeting about the game using hashtags such as “families enter stadiums” and “the people welcome women entering stadiums.”
“There are three stadiums in use for women this season,” said Alqudaib. “These are in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. The rest will be ready for the start of the next season in August.”
Such practical issues of installing women’s toilets aside, it all felt symbolic.
“The women were excited because they came not only for the team but for a greater cause for the future,” said Algashgari. “The men were very, very collaborative and welcoming, they truly believe women should be empowered.”
It remains to be seen what happens for women and football in Saudi Arabia. Algashgari is confident that it will be positive.
“We can only be hopeful this be the beginning of all good things, a Saudi women football team, a Saudi women league and so on. Saudi society is changing very much at a historical rate and that’s all thanks to firstly, God, and secondly our king and crown prince who were able to make this change and make this dream a reality.”