Saudi Arabia may review ban on girls' school sports

The Guardian

King Abdullah pushes cautious social reforms improving women's rights in the face of conservative resistance

Abdullah’s moves to liberalise Saudi Arabia have faced opposition from powerful clerics and their supporters. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

9 April 2014 - Saudi authorities have been asked to consider lifting a state school ban on sports for girls, according to the official SPA news agency.

Under a strict interpretation of sharia law, Saudi women are banned from driving and must gain formal permission from a male relative to leave the country, start a job or open a bank account. But King Abdullah is pushing cautious social reforms improving women's rights in the face of conservative resistance.

SPA said Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, which advises the government on policy, had asked the education ministry to look into including sports for girls in state-run schools with the proviso that they should conform to sharia rules on dress and gender segregation.

Women were included in its Olympic team for the first time only two years ago.

Although the council's decisions are not binding, they are seen as important in Saudi Arabia because it is the only official forum in which new laws and government policy on sensitive social issues are publicly discussed.

Members who supported the decision pointed to an increase in obesity-related illnesses in Saudi Arabia, particularly among women.

Those who opposed the decision said there were many schools that were not equipped to allow for girls' sports. Some members also questioned whether physical education lessons had decreased obesity in boys.

A year ago, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the 150-member chamber for the first time.

The world's top oil exporter has maintained an official ban on sports classes for girls in state schools under pressure from religious conservatives.

A ban on sports in private girls' schools was officially lifted last year, though some of those schools had already been providing physical education classes.

When women were included for the first time in the Saudi Olympic team at the London 2012 Games, the move won support from many of its citizens, but it also prompted some to criticise the morals of the two female athletes, a runner and a judoka, on social media.

Abdullah's moves to make it easier for Saudi women to work and study alongside men, and to promote more tolerant views of other religions have faced opposition from powerful clerics and their supporters, who fear the kingdom is losing its Islamic values in favour of western idea