A year ago, I was standing on the sidelines of a soccer game in Riyadh with a wave of screaming teenage girls swelling around me as their favorite team sprinted down the field for a goal.
Their shrieks of delight drowned out the local muezzin as he belted out the evening call to prayer from a nearby mosque.
It was perhaps the most memorable moment of my two-week trip, revealing a glimmer of opportunity for these girls to experience the same sort of self-reliance, discipline, and exhilaration as I had felt myself as a young female athlete – albeit on very different turf.
You can read my story here: Saudi girls find freedom in cleats.
But it also seemed all too ephemeral, as they were forced to play on a private field with no males in attendance. Not even their fathers were allowed to watch. Some didn’t even tell their relatives for fear of retribution, so frowned upon – especially in the conservative Saudi capital – is the idea of girls playing sports.
Since then, Saudi Arabia – one of the only three countries in the world that as of last summer had never permitted women to compete in the Olympics – allowed 800-meter runner Sarah Attar of California and judo athlete Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani to compete under the Saudi flag in London. (Still, they have a long road to producing champions: Attar finished second to last in the 800-meter heats with a time of 2:44.95, 48 seconds behind the gold-medal time, while the 16-year-old Shahrkhani failed to advance beyond the initial elimination round of 32.)
Today comes more good news for Saudi girls with a knack for sports, or a desire to learn. The government is sanctioning sports for girls in private schools for the first time, a move that is being interpreted as a test balloon for a possible expansion into public schools. Modest dress will be required and female teachers procured where possible.
"[This decision] stems from the teachings of our religion, which allows women to practice such activities in accordance with sharia," Education Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Dakhini told SPA, according to CNN.
Another major boost for aspiring female athletes is that the education ministry has called for adequate facilities for girls’ sports. In a country where nearly all Saudi women wear a headscarf and the long cloak-like abaya outdoors, just having a place to exercise is no small feat. A super classy hotel I visited last year boasted a women’s “gym” which was really a stuffy single hotel room with a few exercise machines on the carpeting; other top-notch hotels didn’t even bother trying to create a place for women to exercise, despite catering to Western travelers.
Women’s gyms do exist, but they risk being shut down over licensing issues, and often are affordable only for the elite.
Of course, the private schools that will now offer proper sports activities are also for the elite. But in an ultraconservative country that is at best inching toward reform, it allows aspiring female athletes in Saudi Arabia to move a little closer to the goalpost.