Saudi Arabia mulls letting schoolgirls play sport

Senior education official is quoted as saying Gulf kingdom is working to change policy
Saudi Arabia mulls letting schoolgirls play sport
Sports in the patriarchal society of Saudi Arabia has long been reserved as an activity for men. (AFP/Getty Images)
By Reuters
Mon 02 Apr 2012 09:12 PM

Saudi Arabia is considering letting girls play sport at school, a senior education official was quoted as saying on Monday, in what would represent a relaxation of rules governing women's lives in the conservative Islamic kingdom.

Under Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic legal system, powerful clerics have issued religious rulings against female participation in sport as one of a series of restrictions. Women must have the permission of a male "guardian" to travel abroad, work and have some elective surgery. They are also barred from driving.

After King Abdullah moved last year to bring women into the country's political process, however, there have been some signs authorities may allow sportswomen to compete internationally and make it easier for girls to exercise.

Noura al-Fayez, the deputy education minister for female student affairs, was quoted in a letter addressed to activist group Human Rights Watch as saying that the government was working to change things.

Her letter said the ministry was working to set up a "comprehensive physical education programme", including sports facilities and a health and nutrition awareness scheme "as part of its national strategy for physical education for boys and girls", the daily al-Watan newspaper reported.

Human Rights Watch received a similar letter from Fayez in January, which said physical education for girls was under consideration "as one of the priorities of the ministry's leadership".

A month later the New York-based rights group lambasted Saudi Arabia for never having sent a female athlete to compete in the Olympic Games. Last month, however, the International Olympic Committee said the kingdom had submitted a list of female athletes it wanted to send to this year's London Games.

Some private girls schools already run sports programmes for their pupils, but state-run schools do not while female gyms must adhere to strict regulations that fall under the Health Ministry.

The official sports body, the General Presidency of Youth Welfare, only caters to men, and many female athletes complain of a lack of facilities and training opportunities.

In 2009, Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, who sits on the official Supreme Council of Religious Scholars said excessive "movement and jumping" needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity.

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