Two years after it sent female athletes to the Olympics for the first time, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is considering taking an even larger step to benefit women in the country. Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, an advisory body to the monarchy, recommended last week that the long-existing ban on sports at girls’ state schools should be lifted. The recommendation came a year after Saudi Arabia relaxed its ban on sports at private girls schools.
The Shura Council does not have the authority to make laws, so its recommendations are not definite. But the recommendation itself is a major step for the kingdom, which has long banned girls and women, who must be covered from head-to-toe while in public, from participating in sports.
The International Olympic Committee, which negotiated the entry of two Saudi women into the 2012 London Olympics and has urged the kingdom to expand opportunities for women, praised the recommendation.
“On the IOC President’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week the National Olympic Committee outlined plans to increase women’s participation in sport in the kingdom at university level, which we fully support,” IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said in a statement. “And following participation by female athletes from Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games in London and the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore this would be a further step towards full participation by girls and women at all levels of sport in the country.”
Opponents of the ban have argued that it is important to promote equality of opportunity — and to avoid IOC sanctions for not having Olympic-qualified female athletes — and also to promote better health in a country where obesity rates are rising. Data from the United States suggests that access to sports could help: studies conducted since the U.S. instituted Title IX to expand girls’ athletic opportunities have shown that American girls who participate in sports experience better health and economic outcomes throughout their lives.
The ban on school sports, though, is hardly the only problem facing female athletes in Saudi Arabia. The country still prevents women from renting gyms or fields to compete and train, and women are not allowed into stadiums for sporting events. The kingdom shut down private women’s gyms in 2010, and women are not allowed to register sports teams or tournaments. As a result, women across Saudi Arabia participate in underground sports leagues.
Still, lifting the ban could represent major progress toward more equality for Saudi women both in sports and beyond (Saudi women, for instance, are still banned from both driving and voting in national elections).
“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,” Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch told Agence France Presse. “It’s a good sign that Saudi authorities appear to realize letting all girls in Saudi Arabia play sports is important to their physical and mental wellbeing.”