Saudi Arabia is a highly conservative state following strict Islamic laws. Many restrictions are imposed on Saudi women that obstruct their growth at national and international levels. The country prohibits Saudi women from mingling with non-relative males and participating in sports and outdoor activities. This factor keeps Saudi Arabia far behind in the global race of women empowerment.
However, this year, Saudi Arabia made a historic move by approving four Saudi women athletes, including track and field athlete Sarah Attar, to participate in the Rio Olympics. The first Saudi woman to compete in the 100m race in the Olympic Games is Kariman Abuljadaye. At 2012 Summer Olympics, judoka Wojdan Shaherkani became the first Saudi Arabian woman to represent the Kingdom at any Olympic Games. But this progress in women’s sports participation came only after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) threatened to disqualify the Saudi Arabian team if the Kingdom fails to send women athletes for 2016 Olympics.
The real picture of Saudi women’s status continues to be somewhat unsatisfactory. Most of the athletes who were chosen for Rio Olympic were either residents of other countries or had moved out of the Kingdom for better coaching. Also, these athletes are not allowed to contest within the Kingdom (as they will have to be in the public, mingle with men, and contest without abayas). Saudi Arabia has an active football team, 150 official sports clubs, and several gyms, but all are limited to men. Meanwhile, many female-only clubs and fitness centres struggle to get licences.
How is this discrimination impacting women in Saudi Arabia?
Preventing women from joining sports, gyms, and fitness clubs has resulted in high levels of physical inactivity in women. Of the 38 Muslim countries studied in 2015, Saudi Arabia ranked second in the list of physically inactive nations (with 73.1% of Saudi women leading an inactive life). Thanks to this low rate of participation in sports and exercise, 70% of Saudi nationals are either overweight or obese (44% women and 26% men). Compared to other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has witnessed the highest number of deaths (50%) due to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
“Schools in Saudi Arabia still don’t have compulsory physical education for girls. If this continues, the country would fail in producing sportswomen.”
What could be the solution?
In 2012, the ban on women’s participation in Olympic Games was lifted by the Saudi Government. Recently, the country named Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud the Head of Saudi Arabia’s sports ministry. Nonetheless, these minor changes are not enough for Saudi women to progress in sports:
• Physical education for girls must be made mandatory.
• Government’s active participation is required. Training and funding should be provided for female athletes.
• Organisations and associations for female hopefuls should be set up.
• Girls’ teams should be allowed to participate in national and international games.
• Obstacles in acquiring licenses for running female health clubs and gyms should be eliminated.
• Pressure from other nations and major international bodies can also help Saudi women progress.