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.”
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.