Saudi women’s football team defies stereotypes

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Members of the United Eagles football team. (Photos/Shutterstock)
Updated 06 August 2018

Saudi women’s football team defies stereotypes

  • It’s beautiful to be part of the sports movement in the Kingdom under Vision 2030, and it’s important to advance while preserving our national identity
  • There has been a great turnout of Saudi women at the tournament, with 10 female teams that participated

JEDDAH: In the past year, women in Saudi Arabia have been openly participating in various sports. The rising number of female sports enthusiasts and teams is due to social reforms, introduced as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan, giving women more freedoms.

One football team, the United Eagles, comprises 21 women aged 18-22 years. “We formed the team in 2016,” Captain Nouf Al-Shammari told Arab News on a sports field in the city of Alkhobar, where they practice three times a week.
“We started out with 12 college students who were brought together by our love for the sport,” she said.
“We played friendly matches with other female teams, and along the way more women from outside the college started to join. As our team grew, we went on to create the United Eagles.”
The team has participated in a number of unofficial friendly matches regionally. It took part in its first regional tournament in 2017.
Its second regional tournament was this year, organized by Sport Box, an academy based in Alkhobar that introduced female sports to its facility last year.
Sport Box representative Essam Moustafa said rising demand drove the academy to create facilities for women, including tennis, basketball, volleyball, swimming and football. One of the most popular sports at the academy is football, he added.
“Previously we held female football tournaments in Bahrain, but as the number of participating female teams started to grow, we decided to hold the tournament at our own football field,” Moustafa told Arab News.
“There has been a great turnout of Saudi women at the tournament, with 10 female teams that participated.”
United Eagles member Waad Al-Dhowayan said: “When we saw the level of professionalism of the other teams at the tournaments, we knew we had to start training vigorously and consistently with a specialized trainer in order to move forward and compete at a professional level.”
The team said it still lacks the skills necessary to play at an elite international level. Even in the summer heat, the women routinely practice on cement, with a coach and gear that they have self-funded.
They say there is still a taboo in Saudi Arabia about female professional footballers. “There’s not enough awareness about female sports in the country,” said United Eagles member Kawthar Abu Askr.
“People usually think of football and other sports as something that should be practiced by men only. We still get criticized for practicing it.”

Social taboo
The team members grew up playing football with their male relatives, but as they got older it became socially unacceptable due to certain customs and traditions that do not allow men and women to mix.
Most of the team members said initially even their parents and close family members did not accept them playing football, but with all the changes occurring in Saudi Arabia, they are slowly starting to accept the idea of female footballers.
However, they said they receive more support from their female friends, who cheer them on at all their matches.
The players said people are starting to understand the health benefits of sports. “I started to play football due to health concerns,” said United Eagles member Najd Al-Thunyan.
“I had anemia and I wasn’t very fit, but after playing football regularly I noticed that my fitness and stamina improved and I felt more energetic. For me football is a lifestyle, not just a hobby.”
Lina Almaeena, a well-known advocate for women’s sports who in 2003 founded Jeddah United — Saudi Arabia’s first private female basketball team — said the future of women’s sports in the Kingdom is promising.
“We’ve had basketball tournaments since 2003, but they were all held unofficially. However, in 2017 we held a tournament in Al-Jawhara stadium under the General Sports Authority and the Sports Ministry,” she told Arab News.
“It’s beautiful to be part of the sports movement in the Kingdom under Vision 2030, and it’s important to advance while preserving our national identity.”
The United Eagles players said there is a bright future ahead for female footballers in the Kingdom.
They hope to see official national teams and leagues, as well as more sports facilities for women so they can train at the same level as men.

Motorsport must encourage more women to compete, says Saudi female driver Aseel Al-Hamad

Updated 35 min 32 sec ago

Motorsport must encourage more women to compete, says Saudi female driver Aseel Al-Hamad

  • FIA is hosting an event alongside the Nov. 22-23 Diriyah ePrix called “Girls on Track"
  • Said Kingdom hosting events like Formula E is vital in boosting popularity of motorsport

RIYADH: One of Saudi Arabia’s first female racing drivers believes motorsport is too male dominated and that more needs to be done to encourage women to enter the sport.

Speaking exclusively to Arab News, Aseel Al-Hamad said the fact that only 1.5 percent of racing licences are held by women was “a big international issue.”

Al-Hamad, who is also the first female board member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation, said that while there are some women blazing a trail in the sport, more needs to be done by its authorities.

“There are Formula 1 drivers like Tatiana Calderón, team principles such as Susie Wolff and Claire Williams. We also have female mechanical engineers and in all kinds of positions, but they are just a few. 

“We need to use them as role models to encourage more young girls to become like these amazing women,” she added.

Al-Hamad, who has been passionate about cars since her youth, told Arab News that she is a fan of Formula 1 and a highlight of her career was being invited to drive an F1 car, but her driving idol was Michèle Mouton. 

“Because, back then in the 1980s, she competed in an all-men rally championship. And honestly, I don't think anyone did what she did at that time,” she said.

It is experiences like those that inspired her to forge a path for more women in motorsport and lead the way for female drivers in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Al-Hamad, who mixes racing with her interior design business, is one of the representatives on the International Automobile Federation (FIA)’s “Women in Motorsport Commission”, which creates programs and initiatives to encourage more young girls to be inspired by the sport and consider it as a career.

“I won’t forget the day I got contacted by the president of the Federation asking me to join the board of directors, it's great because I have lots of difficulties in my career and it's so great to now build a foundation for these young women and ensure that they won't go through the struggles and the challenges I went through,” she said.

On the possibility of one day seeing a Saudi female world champion in major motorsport such as F1 and Formula E, she said: “Today, it is possible, especially when we are seeing how the government is very much supporting sports and women’s participation in sport. 

“We have just recently started and we're starting really fast. I won’t be surprised to see a champion soon competing in big international events.”

Al-Hamad also said the Kingdom hosting events like Formula E is vital in boosting the popularity of motorsport in the country and the wider region. 

“Maybe most of the people used to watch football. But, today, when we have such international motorsport event, so many people will get closer to the motorsport and understand the rules. 

“And maybe these young generations, when they attend the race, they might get inspired and become fans of motorsport.” She added.

The FIA is hosting an event alongside the Nov. 22-23 Diriyah ePrix called “Girls on Track,” the second time such an event has been held outside of Europe.

“This event is very much focused on encouraging young girls from eight to 18 years old to discover their talents and motorsport, hopefully it will inspire them to consider a career in motorsport,” Al-Hamad said. 

The event will include educational workshops to introduce girls to a range of topics -- from mechanical engineering to motorsport journalism, as well as opportunities to use racing simulators and to drive on a carting track.

The girls will also take part in a panel discussion with some figurehead females in motorsport including Susie Wolff, team principal of Venturi Formula E. 

“We've approached mostly schools and we sent them invitations to have girls register and hopefully they will discover their talents,” Al-Hamad said.

Her advice to young women is to achieve what they dream for, even if they are dreaming big.

“They might have some fears at the beginning, they might think it's impossible. But my advice to them is to take small steps and just think of the steps with time, they will be surprised that they actually achieve their dreams,” she said.

Ahead of the Diriyah ePrix, Al-Hamad drove Porsche’s first all-electric road vehicle -- the Taycan -- from Dubai to Riyadh with former F1 driver Mark Webber.

The Taycan, which goes on sale in the Middle East in 2020, is the most powerful production electric model that the sports car manufacturer currently has in its product range, hitting 0-100kmh in 3.2 seconds.

On driving it, Al-Hamad said: “We wanted to test the performance of the car and it's great that we just arrived ahead of Porsche's debut in the Formula E this weekend.

“I love the handling, the feeling, it's a fast car, it has the same Porsche DNA in its interior and exterior. It is a beautiful car.”