DUBAI: With every passing week, more and more Saudi women are taking major strides across sporting arenas in the Kingdom.
Their progress, slow at first, has become a deluge.
It was only in 2017 that women were allowed inside stadiums to watch football. But November of last year saw the launch of the 24-team Women’s Football League, which was won by Challenge Riyadh.
The first Saudi female referee, Sham Al-Ghamdi, is rising through the ranks. There are Saudi fencers and show jumpers stepping up to compete at levels previously reserved only for men. Boxing is starting to attract Saudi women into the ring. In motorsports there are the likes of rally driver Dania Akeel pushing boundaries. And only last week, during the Formula E season opener at Diriyah, the first Saudi motorsports woman driver, Reema Juffali, announced that she had signed for Douglas Motorsport in the BRDC British F3 Championship.
These are not cosmetic, or isolated, changes, but ones opening doors for the next generation of Saudi female athletes. It is encouraging, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, that genuine progress is being made at grass-roots level upward, and will only increase in the coming weeks, months and years.
Just as important is what is taking place at the highest levels of sporting institutions in Saudi Arabia. Female representation at sporting federations and inside boardrooms has blossomed in line with Vision 2030, slowly banishing outdated notions of women’s place in sports.
“Any change will face some resistance, whether it’s women participating in sports or others,” Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdul Aziz Turki Al-Faisal said in a recent interview with Arab News. “Our programs today with the Ministry of Sports are all about diversity and inclusion and we had to make sure that everyone is involved in all of our programs. To shed light about certain things and how this has evolved toward positive things, in 2015 we had zero national female teams. Today, we have 23 national teams that are participating in the name of the country.”
“We had 32 federations in 2017, today we have 64 federations; 38 of them have female board members that represent female sports within these federations,” he said. “There’s a lot of changes that have happened within the ecosystem of sports.”
The minister drew attention to the period of time that has seen these changes and said that this had to go hand-in-hand with societal and cultural awakening.
“These things were unheard of in the past and now they are happening and they are finding support from the players and their families,” Prince Abdul Aziz said.
“Things are changing, and things are changing to the positive, and we have to make sure that they change in the right way with the right momentum to make sure that we put the right steps in and for it to be sustainable for the future. We don’t want to do one thing today and regret doing it in the next two or three years.”
To avoid such potential missteps, measures have been taken to ensure the right female representation has been put in place across the Kingdom in recent years.
One of the most prominent has been the appointment of Shaima Saleh Al-Husseini as the managing director of the Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA) in March 2019. The work that she oversaw in 2020 has proved monumental.
During the lockdowns of 2020, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic spread throughout the world, the SFA played a major part in maintaining physical and mental well-being among the homebound Saudi population.
The digital national health and wellness campaign, Baytak Nadeek (Your Home, Your Gym) saw 3.8 million Saudis join in a matter of weeks, while other initiatives such as the Women’s Fitness Festival attracted thousands of participants through social media channels. The latter was staged as part of the SFA’s focus on increasing health and wellness across all segments of Saudi society through education, events, activations and public awareness campaigns.
Crowning a challenging year was the launch of the Women’s Football League (WFL) across Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
“Empowering women comes through positive and proactive programs like the WFL that have been conceptualized to continue to have a lasting impact on health, fitness and wellbeing,” Al-Husseini said. “The SFA, committed to putting women at the forefront of our mission to grow Saudi Arabia’s healthy and active community, continues to engage public and private-sector stakeholders to realize this aim together.”
Such tangible achievements in the field of women’s empowerment stand in stark contrast to some of the scandals taking place elsewhere.
Recent weeks have seen calls for the resignation of Yoshiro Mori, the head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, after he made derogatory remarks about women, saying that they talked too much and that meetings with female board directors would “take a lot of time.”
Such words would be unacceptable in Saudi Arabia today.
Acclaim for the fundamental work being undertaken to include women in sports from grass roots level to boardroom level may have been slow in coming from abroad.
Inside Saudi Arabia, however, the role women are playing is there for all to see and appreciate.