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.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters/file
Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah United all-female basketball prepares for a friendly game against Jordan’s Al Reyadeh in Amman.

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.

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.

The official and societal resistance stem from concerns that female participation in sports will erode Saudi norms, including modest dress and segregation of the sexes. Sheikh Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Khudair, a member of the country's Council of Senior Religious Scholars, went so far as to describe the push for women's sports clubs as "steps of the devil," according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.

The report also summarizes a statement issued by anonymous religious scholars in March 2010, which concluded that participation in sports is "among the greatest tools of the project to corrupt women." While such resistance is spearheaded by religious figures, it appears more rooted in tradition than in religious law.

Those traditions are deeply entrenched in this tribal society, despite its trappings of modernity. Nearly all public schools lack physical education or sports for girls, and there is no commercial license available for establishing female gyms unless they are registered as a health center associated with a hospital. The Ministry of Education says it is working on a comprehensive program to improve exercise opportunities for girls, however – a step backed by health advocates, who note disproportionately high obesity rates among Saudi women.

Among the pioneering Saudi athletes is the muscular captain whose AlYamamah team won the Riyadh soccer tournament against Challenge. Both are private teams established and run largely by the girls.

"Playing soccer, having a team, competing in a league, and living the challenge was once a shared dream among the team players," says the captain, who comes from a conservative family and did not want her name to be used for fear of retribution. "Now, this dream is a reality ... this team made us believe that dreams do come true."

The skills the girls are learning on the field have translated into bigger wins: One player has been recruited by a female investment fund manager, who says that the strategy, tactics, and quickness honed on the soccer field would be key assets in reading the stock market.

Ms. Sadagah, the basketball captain, also credits sports with making her a more confident leader. Last year, she won the Best CEO award in a student entrepreneurial competition for her role in creating a company to sell Saudi youth art. "I grew more confident for sure," she says. "I got a chance to speak up and lead."

Fostering such progress is what motivates Ms. AlAbdulkarim. "When I was a teenager, we could not aspire to entrepreneurship; we didn't even think about it," she says. "That's why I'm doing this for these girls."

When the Riyadh game ends, athletes and fans stream onto the field – some with abayas flowing in the warm wind, others wearing shorts and neon cleats. One team gets a trophy, but both are beaming. "I think our generation is starting the game and the basics," says the AlYamamah captain. "But the next generation will have it, as we say in Arabic, on a plate of silver."

Christa Case Bryant went to Saudi Arabia on a Gatekeeper Editors trip with the International Reporting Project.

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