From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

Underground sport: Saudi women shed veils to play basketball
BY Donna Abu-Nasr  /  05-08-2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — The players bounded into the gym, shedding
their long black cloaks and veils to take to the basketball court. Up
this night: Jeddah United against the Jaguars, as 30 women spectators
hooted and hollered from the stands.

Such is the start of women’s sports in Saudi Arabia — a Muslim country
so conservative that the fledgling women’s sports teams that have
begun to appear in recent years remain almost entirely underground,
far from public scrutiny or religious clerics’ eyes. “One day we’re
going to look back on such events and hopefully say, ‘Wow, we’ve gone
a long way,”‘ said Lina al-Maeena, the founder and team captain of
Jeddah United. “Future generations won’t have to start from zero.”

It is a far cry from Title IX, the landmark 1972 U.S. anti-
discrimination law that spearheaded women’s equal treatment in sports
at a time when the women’s rights movement was gathering steam across
the West. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive or vote and have few
legal rights. The restrictions stem from the strict version of Islam
the kingdom follows. Many conservative adherents believe that women’s
emancipation will lead to decadence and a dissipation of Islamic

For these religious conservatives, keeping the sexes segregated and
maintaining male guardianship over women is not enough. They want to
ban anything they believe might encourage women to abandon
conservative Muslim values. Because of the influence conservative
clerics have on government and society, sports and physical education
classes are banned in state-run girls’ schools. Women’s games and
marathons are canceled when the powerful clergy get wind of them, and
female athletes are not allowed to participate in the Olympics.

Despite such obstacles, Saudi women have quietly been forming soccer,
basketball, volleyball and other teams throughout the kingdom in the
past few years. Some operate under schools and universities, others
are under the umbrella of charities. A few, like Jeddah United and the
Jaguars, are independent. The teams have none of the privileges that
men’s leagues — which have existed for decades — enjoy. They’re not
part of the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, the federation that
oversees sports. They find it hard to get corporate sponsorship. They
don’t have proper facilities where they can train, or even certified
referees. And they are not allowed to participate in international

And while men’s games are broadcast on TV and take place in huge
stadiums, women rarely advertise their games — or even talk openly
about them — for fear the clergy will stop them. That makes it
difficult for them to reach spectators from outside their immediate
circle of friends and family. And teams in one city often do not know
that teams in another exist.

In March, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, the kingdom’s mufti, or senior
cleric, told Okaz newspaper he had ordered a university in the
capital, Riyadh, to cancel a women’s marathon. Last year, clerics
barred a women’s soccer game in the Eastern Province.

Abdul-Kareem al-Khudayr, a professor at Imam University, wrote on al-
Muslim website that introducing physical education classes for girls
at government schools would be tantamount to “following in the devil’s
footsteps” — an argument conservative clerics make to highlight the
corrupting influence of women’s sports. That attitude is one reason
why the rate of obesity among Saudi women is higher than among men,
health care officials say. About 52% of Saudi men and 66% of women are
either obese or overweight, according to Saudi press reports.

The women playing basketball on a recent night last week were
conscious of the controversies. Al-Maeena, 29, stressed that her
efforts to promote sports are aimed at combating such “social ills” as
obesity, osteoporosis and depression, and providing healthy
alternatives for women, who spend their time shopping and smoking
waterpipes. She and the others emphasized they do not seek broader
liberties, such as an end to segregation of the sexes or the wearing
of veils and abayas, the black cloaks all women must wear in public.

“We look at it as part of our national duty. It’s not just for getting
into the Olympics or competing in international games,” al-Maeena said
before the game started. Did she worry the game would be canceled?
“The key is to have publicity later,” she said. “It’s also a matter of
luck, but you’re more likely to get lucky in Jiddah compared to other
places” because the seaport city is the kingdom’s most liberal.

One of the toughest things for the women’s teams is finding coaches,
said Lina Abouznada, board member in charge of the sports center at
the First Women’s Welfare Society, which fields its own team. The
society, which cares for 36 female orphans, was the venue for last
week’s game. The players bounced into the center around dusk, dressed
in loose-fitting, knee-length shorts and jerseys underneath their
flowing abayas. No men were allowed in. The players had trained in
courts they rent at gyms, or in those attached to private homes.

Before playing, the women shed their cloaks — permitted under the
country’s laws because no men were around. Jamila Antone, the Jaguars’
American coach, compared the game to amateur league play in the United
States — even though the two Saudi teams are among Jiddah’s top four.
“If the girls had facilities like boys do for all sports, they would
do better than the boys,” she said.

Norah Ashrur, a 22-year-old special education teacher, watched as her
team, dressed in Jeddah United’s colors of raspberry, white and gray,
played. “It bothers me that nobody cares,” said Ashrur, who lived in
Fort Collins, Colo., from the age of 7 to 12. “In the U.S. everybody
would be there.”

But because of segregation rules, not even her father could come to
the game. In the end, the Jaguars — whose colors are blue, yellow and
gray — won. Abouznada insisted the situation of Saudi female athletes
will change for the better. “Doing things step by step is better than
doing it in one step,” she said. “But we need to speed it up,” al-
Maeena interjected.

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