Saudi Women Try for a League of Their Own

The highly misogynistic society still won't let women drive or become lawyers, yet several female sports teams are forming in Jeddah and are hoping for public support to play in the open.

"What is happening to you, women of Saudi Arabia? You want to have the same lifestyle as men, something that is not appropriate for you? In Allah's name, all that is left is that you will request to be tank drivers and pilots," complained Abdel Rahman al-Azdi on the Al-Arabiya website.

He was commenting on a report according to which the women of Saudi Arabia are planning to promote women's sports in the kingdom, including setting up basketball and soccer teams and asking for the same level of government funding men get.

Saudi soccer fans - Reuters

"Everything of course will be according to religious rules, modesty and accepted social customs in the kingdom" explained Rima al-Abdullah, the captain and founder of the women's soccer team in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

The idea was born two years ago when Abdullah and her girlfriends were sitting in a coffee shop in Jeddah, watching European soccer. They decided that they too were entitled to a team and in a short while 25 other young female sports fans, both single and married, had joined them. Soon after they bought uniforms and began practicing on one of the city's playing fields.

They decided to call their team Kings United and, within a short while set up another two teams in the city. The big secret, and one that has not yet been revealed, is - who is training them? Abdullah says they have international trainers and that they pay their salaries from their own pockets. Saudi trainers have denied that they are involved in the project but it is a fact that the teams are continuing to operate.

For as long as their sports activities were conducted in secret, in the backyards of their houses or on some out-of-the-way sports field, the women were able to play without interference. But now they are planning to come out in the open and to appear before the public, putting them on a collision course with a conservative society that considers putting women behind the wheel taboo, let along in front of a goalpost.

Abdullah has pointed out that the initiative also has a health aspect to it since, she says, "the women of Saudi Arabia are the most obese in the world and encouraging sport is likely to help in reducing the phenomenon. But beyond that, there is no reason why the women of the kingdom should not represent the Saudi nation in exactly the same way as the men do."

She tried to calm critics by saying that she had made it clear that the female soccer players would be allowed to participate in training only after getting permission from their father or brothers, and that they would adhere to strict rules of modesty.

There are also a number of women's basketball teams that operate in Saudi Arabia and the captain of the Jeddah United basketball team, Hadir Sadqa, said in a television interview that the young women of the team have a business sponsor who decides on their uniforms. "We dress according to the nature of the audience and of the rival team. Sometimes we wear long pants and cover our heads during the games," she said.

A women's soccer league is not the only "disaster" that has befallen Saudi Arabian men. Manal al-Sharif, the young Saudi woman who began a widely reported campaign for women to get drivers' licenses in that country, announced last week that she intends to continue the campaign even after the authorities arrested her for nine days in May when she was caught driving alone in the town of Khobar.

"Driving a car is one of the minimal rights coming to us. If we continue our struggle, we will be able to prepare women with self-assurance who will be able to get additional rights," Sharif told the BBC.

It is too soon, however, to hold our breath with regard to women's rights in Saudi Arabia. But gradual progress has already been registered. One example is that King Abdullah has instructed all manufacturers and marketers of women's clothing and cosmetics to employ Saudi women only and not foreign women or men.

According to the assessment by Saudi Labor Minister Adel Fakieh, this new instruction is likely to bring some half a million Saudi women into the labor force and to help solve the economic distress of low-income groups.

Women's clothing stores have been given half a year to replace their current staff with Saudi women while clothing manufacturers have been given a full year for the turnabout.

The regulations also fix strict rules of employment, including a ban on women and men working together in the stores, and ensure convenient work conditions and modest work apparel for employees provided by the store or firm.

The work slots are open only to women between the ages of 20 and 35 and the employers are required to open a bank account for them where their salaries will be deposited so as to ensure that their rights are not prejudiced.

At the same time, the labor ministry has published a list of 24 types of businesses in which it is forbidden to employ women, including roofing, construction, road paving and more.

Women who graduate from law schools are still forbidden to practice as attorneys in Saudi Arabia. They are permitted to serve as legal advisers in private firms or in government offices but they are not allowed to open private offices or to put up signs containing their name and profession.

This despite the fact that there is a growing need for women attorneys as Saudi women become more aware of their domestic and civil rights and increasingly turn to the courts.

According to Saudi law, a woman can speak to a male attorney only when she is accompanied by her guardian, but what happens when the object of her complaint is that very guardian? The Saudi authorities have not yet found an answer to that. Will this be a reason for Saudi women to take to the streets and demonstrate? Don't hold your breath.