By Andy Sambidge
Human Rights Watch says possible end to ban shows Saudi gov't can 'buck the conservative establishment'
An international human rights group has welcomed Saudi Arabia's move towards advancing the rights for women and girls by possibly introducing physical education for girls in public schools.
The Gulf kingdom's Shura Council, the kingdom’s highest consultative body, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the recommendation earlier this month.
The Ministry of Education must draft and present regulations, and the Shura Council and Cabinet must approve them before sports for girls in public schools becomes a reality, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Shura Council vote shows that the Saudi government can buck the conservative establishment and take steps to end discriminatory practices against women when it wants to,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director.
“It’s a good sign that Saudi authorities appear to realise letting all girls in Saudi Arabia play sports is important to their physical and mental wellbeing.”
Saudi authorities previously ruled in May 2013 that female students enrolled in private girls’ schools could take part in sports so long as they wear “decent clothing” and are supervised by female Saudi instructors within the tight regulations of the country’s Education Ministry.
On May 22, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Saudi Arabia’s Education Ministry requesting a timetable for the adoption of a proposed national strategy to promote sports for girls at all levels of education, but did not receive a response.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that still effectively bars girls from taking part in sport in government schools. There is no state sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sports clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees restricted to men.
In a positive development, authorities began allowing licences for private sports clubs for women in March 2013, and the first such club opened in the Eastern Province city of Khobar in June last year.
“Saudi Arabia has a long way to go to end discriminatory practices against women, but allowing girls to play sports in government schools would move the ball down the field in ways that could have major long-term impact,” Whitson said.