By Dr Mona Al Munajjed
Reforms are needed to bridge gender gaps in the Saudi sports system and improve the health of women
As a fervent football fan I followed with great interest the Best FIFA Football Awards 2017 held in October. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal/Real Madrid) retained his position as recipient of the best men’s player award. But I was delighted that Lieke Martens (Netherlands/FC Barcelona) was also a winner.
Who is Lieke Martens? My nephew, Salah, a keen football fan, hadn’t heard of this player. Everyone, even those with little interest in football, knows Ronaldo, but scant media coverage means that the best woman footballer in the world is largely unknown even within the sport at which she excels.
Except during the Olympic Games, when women’s events receive as much attention as men’s, this discrepancy in how the world views women’s sporting achievements, applies to almost all sports.
The reasons for this state of affairs have been the subject of considerable debate. It has been argued that women’s sport would be more popular if it attracted more sponsorship and media attention. Media and sponsors say that if it attracted more interest they would invest more time and money in it.
Women’s sport doesn’t generate enough interest to be rewarded by equal pay, it is claimed. But this is because women’s sport is not given the same platform – men’s sport gets better coverage, better commentary, and higher production values.
The good news is that, according to a recent BBC Sport study for Women’s Sports Week 2017, the gender prize money gap in sport is narrowing, with more sports achieving parity at the top level and 83 percent of sports now rewarding men and women equally. But in football, women earn one-seventieth of the amount that men are rewarded with.
Some claim that men’s sport is more exciting because men are faster and stronger. It is true that women’s sports tend to be less aggressive and slower than men’s - but they make up for this by a greater emphasis on agility and technical skills. In fact, women have often done better than men in many sports and even beaten them in tennis, equestrianism, wrestling, bowling, race car driving, rock-climbing, and running.
Great women athletes make excellent role models. While not many girls will make it to the top, or even take up a sport seriously, more exposure will encourage greater participation in schools. And that can only be good thing.
As well as being good for health, sport teaches discipline in reaching goals, trains teamwork and leadership skills, and can relieve stress, fight depression, boost self-esteem and build self-confidence. Exercise improves memory and concentration. Research indicates that girls who play sports perform better in school and are more likely to graduate than those who don’t.
Sport also helps to maintain a healthy weight. With an increase in physical inactivity along with growing urbanisation, easier modes of transportation and a rising intake of high saturated foods, people around the globe are getting fatter. World Health Organisation (WHO) data estimates that in 2016, 39 percent of men and 40 percent of women were overweight. Of these, over 650 million adults were obese.
In Saudi Arabia and the UAE this is a serious problem. WHO statistics indicate that overweight and obesity (body mass index of 25 and above) among adults 18 + for both sexes in 2016 has reached 70 percent in Saudi, and 68 percent in the UAE, making them two of the heaviest countries in the world.
Being overweight increases the risk of diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cerebral and cardiovascular diseases and cancer, all potentially fatal, as well as causing serious joint problems. And obesity in women in Saudi Arabia is rising faster than in men.
For decades, physical activity and active recreation for women in the kingdom have been considered inappropriate. Patriarchal prejudices have ranged from sports being a masculine preserve to the need to protect women’s femininity, with traditional male identity threatened by physically stronger women and challenged by forward-thinking women.
But Saudi Arabia is taking steps to increase women’s participation in sport. The key to bridging gender gaps in the Saudi sports system is the institution of major reforms at the infrastructure level while promoting women in sports and introducing policy changes supporting their participation.
With Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is making a wave of changes for the eradication of gender discrimination and the empowerment of Saudi women. Vision 2030 promotes physical, psychological and social well-being through sports and athletic activities.
The goal is to increase the ratio of individuals exercising at least once a week from 13 to 40 per cent. Moreover, Saudi Arabia plans to develop its sports sector with a fund of almost $666m and intends to help men and women athletes qualify for the Olympics.
In 2016, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud was appointed vice president for women’s affairs of the General Sports Authority in Saudi Arabia.
Since then, she has been leading tirelessly the way for women’s participation in sports for health, competition, and professional opportunities. In addition, she was recently appointed as the first woman president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports. She also launched the new Studio 55 centre for sports and fitness for women in Jeddah.
In July, the ministry of education declared the launching of physical education for Saudi girls in all public schools from fall 2017. Other changes include the upcoming opening of major sports stadiums in Riyadh, Dammam, and Jeddah to welcome women and families.
Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, expressed her enthusiasm to me: “There are huge changes in Saudi Arabia. I perceive them with a big smile and a few tears as it is finally happening. It is a beautiful transition in Saudi women’s lives… and I hope we will have lot of equal opportunity and equal chances in our country.”
The UAE, in Vision 2021, is providing sports support and modern facilities for all citizens. Emirati women are breaking down barriers participating in swimming, gymnastics and skating. In October 2017, the Sharjah Women’s Sports Foundation organised the fourth Sharjah Women Sports Cup, where women compete in volleyball and archery. And in November 2017, the International Conference of Sports for Women was organised by the Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi to empower Emirati women and young girls through the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, facilitating women’s sports.
So how do we increase Saudi women’s participation in sports? First, change the traditional patriarchal perceptions about women playing sports; eradicate the social stigma and bias against sports for girls. We must organise campaigns showing the health benefits and improvements in body image and self-confidence. And we should improve women’s sports facilities, organise free and friendly fitness classes, appoint quality coaches, and encourage shopping centre walking groups.
And for my favourite sport? I would like to see a women’s football league and the establishment of Saudi Arabia’s women’s national team. Where is our Lieke Martens? The next FIFA Women’s World Cup will be held in 2019, and then 2023. Sportswomen in Saudi Arabia, will you be ready?