The Jeddah United women's basketball team trickled onto the court, each player wrapped in a black abaya and head scarf. Within minutes, the women had shed their cloaks and were in uniform – white pants and jerseys with their names in red – practicing layups, passes, and foul shots.
The team, made up mostly of Saudi students and housewives, is preparing for a local tournament this month. But what the women would really love to do, many said, is compete internationally and represent their country abroad, something Saudi Arabia does not permit.
"We want to reach Olympic levels," said Shatha Bakhsh, a law student. "We have a lot of potential, but not the chance to show it."
Saudi Arabia follows a strict version of Islam that bans men and women from mingling and does not allow women to drive or to travel without a male guardian's permission. Powerful religious clerics also ban sports for girls in public schools, deeming it un-Islamic, and recently canceled two rare all-women's events, a soccer match and a marathon. Gyms for women were closed in the early 1990s and have been allowed to reopen, but only when affiliated with hospitals.
Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries competing in the Olympics without a female delegation. Though the kingdom has come under increasing pressure from the International Olympic Committee to include women on its team, many in this deeply patriarchal and traditional society agree with the restrictions, believing that allowing female athletes could lead to Western-style independence for women and an erosion of established culture.
But Lina al-Maeena, Jeddah United's founder and team captain, said women's sports are a positive force and should be an integral part of every young woman's life.
"When parents say that sports is sinful for girls, it really upsets me, because they're depriving their daughters of something that's very good for them," said Ms. Maeena, who has two young daughters.
There are more than a dozen women's basketball teams in this Red Sea city, the country's most liberal, involving several hundred players. Some operate legally but quietly under the umbrella of women's charitable societies or as part of private high schools and colleges, but others operate without a government permit, as in the case of Jeddah United.
Many of the teams maintain a low profile, refusing photos and interviews for fear of drawing attention and being forced to shut down. But some, like Jeddah United, are seeking to make public appearances and are pushing for change.
The phenomenon has prompted sharp words from the conservative clergy. In a recent posting on the website, islamlight.net, prominent Saudi sheiks Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, Abdullah al-Jibreen and Abdul-Aziz al-Rajhi issued a fatwa, or religious decree, banning women's sports centers in the kingdom.
"Opening these centers is one of the main reasons and the biggest doors leading to the spread of decadence," the decree states. "And it is known that the only women who will frequent these centers are those with little or no manners."
"The idea of Saudi women playing sports is socially unacceptable to some people," Maeena said. "That's the barrier we're trying to break."