RIYADH: The last five years have witnessed a remarkable rise in the participation of women in sports across Saudi Arabia.
Women’s departments in one sports federation after another have been established, aiming to increase grassroots participation in the short term, establish local competitions, and, in the long term, rub shoulders with the world’s best on the international stage.
The latest to set its sights on forming a competitive domestic scene is the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation.
In late 2023 it established a women’s department to increase female interest in the sport, which, historically, was played by small communities of mostly male expatriates.
Today, Saudi women and girls get the opportunity to try the sport first-hand through workshops and register for training programs and games.
Sami Smara, technical director at the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation, told Arab News: “We (now) have 41 women players and 20 girls U18 … in the Kingdom — they play only against each other.
“This February we will participate in the Arab (Rugby) Sevens tournament hosted in the Kingdom at Taif, it will (have) 10 men’s and eight women’s teams competing for the trophy. The U18’s will participate in (the) Asia Tournament in August and the senior(s) will compete this year in Asia Tournament (in) September and also at (the) next Dubai International Sevens tournament,” he continued.
Twenty-six-year-old Aleya Abdullah Bamakhrama, a health care administrator and ice hockey player, is one of the female players training.
“I’m so happy that I’m playing multi-sports. It’s helped me and I would like in the future to be a good professional player as well, in these two sports,” she said.
By being on the rugby field, Bamakhrama hopes to combat societal stereotypes associated with the sport and encourage other women to get involved.
“The Saudi society, they say, (rugby) is not for a female, it’s for men and no women should play,” she said. “But I’m proud to start playing rugby and I will prove that rugby, it’s suitable for women and men.
“I want everyone in my community to believe that women can play anything any sport at any time and can achieve a lot of goals,” Bamakhrama continued.
Ameera Saud Marghalani, a 17-year-old high school student, first picked up a rugby ball when the federation conducted a workshop at her school.
“Me and my friends were sitting in class and our coach showed up,” she told Arab News. “We started passing the ball at the beginning just to get familiar with what rugby is. And then later on we started attending more classes, and now we’ve been training for four months.
“I think we can definitely prove a lot of people wrong since we do have a lot of support and great coaches,” Marghalani said.
She echoes the sentiments of the rest of the players, who told Arab News that with the support system provided by the federation, from its board members to its coaches, they are ready to defy all odds.
“We definitely want to show everyone that we can make it in such a tough sport” Marghalani said. “I think there’s a great journey ahead of us really.”
Most of the female rugby training takes place in Riyadh at playing fields facilitated by Irqah Sports Stadium and Prince Nourah University.
Smara hopes that with more funding the federation will be able to expand the popular training programs to more cities outside of the capital.