The participation of Saudi women in sports has always been disputed. Physical education was banned in girls’ schools, but allowed for boys. Majoring in sports education was not an option for female undergraduates, but was open to male students. Women were not allowed to compete as athletes in international sporting events or to join as spectators in national football matches. In school, exercising for girls was limited to a few jumping jacks during morning assembly, intended to mentally alert them rather than physically improve their overall well-being.
The absence of Saudi women in international sporting events resulted in increased negotiations to include them in the 2012 Olympics in London. Two Saudi athletes competed in London, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in the 800-meter race.
The participation of Attar and Shahrkhani provoked a largely negative reaction among the Saudi population, even though they dressed in accordance to Islamic principles. When the two athletes left the competition early, they were accused of being incompetent. This unfavorable view of women and sports is embedded in the culture that has been shaped by the opinions and beliefs of religious scholars and what they deem as appropriate and in line with Islamic teachings.
For years, prominent Saudi and non-Saudi religious scholars in and outside the country have been debating whether Saudi women should engage in sports or not. Sheikh Abd Al-Aziz ibn Baz, the Grand Mufti and head of the Council of Ulema until his death in 1999, was against women’s participation in sports unless performed in gender-segregated venues. Other prominent scholars after him concluded that sports are not against Islamic teachings, but might open the door for “un-Islamic consequences” if allowed for women, and hence advised against it.
The year 2017 changed the de facto view of women and sports. In July, the Ministry of Education announced on its website that girls’ schools will start offering sports activities. The announcement generated debate among Saudis who were concerned that the decision will replace the full-length school uniform with sports outfits. These concerns resulted in a further announcement by the ministry in December stating that it had commissioned a special body to examine the options for a “sports uniform”.
Engaging in sports activities has been a topic of dispute among scholars, even if performed in gender-segregated areas. However, the majority of scholars agree that women should not be allowed into football stadiums. It is no wonder, then, that lifting the stadium ban on women was a bold step in the reform process. The first match to witness women spectators will be in Jeddah on Friday, January 12 and in Riyadh on Statuary, January 13.
Religious scholars have expressed diverse views regarding why women should not be allowed in stadiums or watch football matches. Mohammed Al-Arifi, a prominent religious figure with 20 million followers on Twitter, expressed his strong opposition against allowing women into football stadiums. He argued that women will lose their “modesty and composure” when they start cheering for their favorite teams.
Some religious scholars voiced their skepticism of the “real intentions” behind women’s interest in football matches. One scholar, Khaled Al-Mosleh, said that women can watch matches at home as long as they are genuinely interested in the match, and not in the “physique of male players”. Saad Al-Hajari, the former head of the Saudi government’s religious edict authority in the southern province of Assir, criticized women who watch football matches, arguing that they have no knowledge of the sport and that “they ought to be ashamed of themselves” for watching matches purely out of interest in male players.
In September 2017, Saad Al-Hajari was suspended from all religious activities following his remarks on the “limited mental capabilities” of women which angered many Saudis on social media. A few days later, the driving ban on women was lifted, followed by the announcement that women can enter football stadiums starting from January 2018.
Some religious scholars in Saudi Arabia have a tendency of being inconsistent. For the past few decades, there seems to be a recurrent pattern in which scholars deem something un-Islamic, only to consider it appropriate a few years later. This tendency became more and more apparent when scholars who strongly opposed phones, the internet and television became stars on TV shows with million of followers on Twitter. Scholars who oppose sports education and allowing women to enter stadiums remain silent today even though they are still active on social media.
Allowing women into sports stadiums and encouraging their participation in sports in and out of the country will test this inconsistency even further. Saudis now are more skeptical of the credibility of religious figures who are fast in condemning and banning anything new as “un-Islamic”. This is a radical departure from the past few decades when the majority of the population took for granted what religious figures, official or amateur, have to say on almost everything. Breaking away from the absolute reliance on religious figures is becoming more visible everyday. This, in turn, is fostering an increased self-awareness among the youth who are breaking free from cultural and social restrictions that have no basis in religion.