Saudi Arabia has lifted its ban on sports for women and girls in public schools, increasing important access to physical activity in a country with stringent limitations placed on women. The education ministry announced earlier this month that, beginning in the fall 2017 school year, physical education programs will be offered at girls’ schools.
This recent announcement marks a large step forward in gradual progress toward increasing women’s access to sports—access which has thus far been harshly limited, with negative consequences on the health of Saudi women and girls. Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been documenting the refusal of access to sports for women since 2010, released a report in 2012 revealing that no government sports infrastructure existed for women, and until August of 2016 women could not attend or participate in national or state-organized sports competitions. From 2009 to 2010, the Saudi government closed private gyms for women. Women are forbidden from attending men’s sports events as spectators.
The exclusion of Saudi women from sports culture is rooted in the conservative belief that women participating in athletic activities would lead to the development of their immorality. Saudi leaders believe that sports participation will result in women dressing more immodestly, leaving their houses more than necessary and spending time with men, and some believe that by causing women to develop muscles and appearing more “masculine,” playing sports will cause women to contradict their original “nature.”
These beliefs and their consequent limitations put the health of women and girls at significant risk. Obesity and diabetes rates in Saudi Arabia have increased, particularly among women and girls. The new implementation of physical education in schools is part of Saudi Vision 2030, a plan of the kingdom’s future goals created by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which reported that only 13 percent of Saudi individuals exercise at least once a week.
Recent years have seen women making progress in the realm of sports, with two women athletes sent to the 2012 Olympic Games in London and four sent in 2016 to Rio de Janeiro. Private schools were permitted to offer physical education to female students four years ago, and some government schools began offering the program to girls before the official announcement. A female department was created within the General Sports Authority with Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud as its head, and the licensing of women’s gyms was authorized earlier this year.
However, several obstacles still remain in the way of physical education for women and girls in schools. Girls’ schools currently lack the resources for physical education programs, as most do not have sports facilities or female gym teachers, and it remains unclear whether the program would be mandatory or parental permission would be required. In addition, the male guardianship program in Saudi Arabia, which requires that women obtain the permission of a male guardian to perform basic transactions, also prevents women from reaping the full benefits of physical activity. Since Saudi women cannot drive, finding transportation to sports practices and tournaments poses an additional challenge.
Despite these remaining difficulties, the lifting of the ban on sports in public schools marks some progress for Saudi women and girls, who can now reap health benefits and access that they did not have before. “This overdue reform is absolutely crucial for Saudi girls,” says Minky Worden, HRW’s director of global initiatives. “This important step forward can advance human rights and health for women despite the daunting legal hurdles that remain in the country.”