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Progress Watch

Saudi girls find freedom in cleats

A high-energy evening soccer game between two girls' teams is part of a growing female sports movement in conservative Saudi Arabia.

By Staff writer / May 30, 2012



Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

As the evening call to prayer rings out across Riyadh, a pack of teenage girls eating cotton candy and popsicles erupt in cheers, drowning out the muezzin.

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Their favorite soccer team has just scored.

"Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!" they shout in English, jumping up and down for the yellow-clad Challenge team, long black curls flying. "Chall-ENNNNNNNNNge!!!"

The victory is larger than one goal, however: The college students facing off in tonight's tournament are female, a rarity in this male-dominated society where women have traditionally been kept in the background.

These girls – among them aspiring surgeons, lawyers, and investment bankers – are part of a small but growing group challenging this society's strictures on the distaff side.

While they are still forced to practice and play largely in secret – no males, not even fathers, can attend their games – the trend is part of the growing momentum for women's rights here. It is cultivating their ability to excel not only on the field but in school, society, and the workplace – and fostering the kind of teamwork needed if this country is to develop stronger institutions.

"Sport is ... a small window [into change]," says businesswoman Lamya AlAbdulkarim, who recently helped launch a new girls' soccer program.

The campaign could get a boost this summer: Equestrian Dalma Malhas may become the first Saudi woman to compete in the Olympics. While she was born in the United States and trains in Europe, her participation would be a symbolic victory.

"At the end of the day, she's Saudi and she's representing Saudi Arabia," says Hadeer Sadagah, teenage co-captain of the Jeddah United basketball team.

Saudi Arabia is one of only three nations that have never included women in their Olympic delegations, and it still appears reluctant to do so. If Ms. Malhas competes in the London Games this summer, it will likely be as an individual invited by the International Olympic Committee, not as a member of the official Saudi delegation. She competed under similar circumstances in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, winning bronze.

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