Saudi Arabia welcomes women sports fans to stadiums as social transformation proceeds
LONDON - Saudi Arabia took further steps to narrow the gender gap, with women in the kingdom attending an official football match for the first time and a professional women’s squash tournament — with a Saudi player — contested in Riyadh.
Female Saudi football enthusiasts joined their male counterparts January 12 at King Fahd Sports City in Riyadh to see Jeddah’s Al-Ahli take on the Eastern Province’s Al- Batin.
“I’ve been counting the seconds since the announcement,” Jeddah-based football fan Sarah al-Ahmad said. Ahmad, who attended the January 13 football match in Jeddah between Al-Ittihad against Al-Hilal said female participation strengthens the community and provides more recreational options.
“Why should we be different than anybody else?” she asked.
Memes and hashtags in support of the event trended on social media, including “the people welcome women to the stadiums.” There were also rumblings of displeasure, many of which quoted Islamic scripture to support their argument, which encapsulated the kingdom’s struggle to embrace a moderate form of Islam.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz last October vowed to return the kingdom to “moderate Islam” while speaking at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh.
“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. Saudi Arabia and the entire region saw the proliferation of Al-Sahwa [awakening] project after 1979 for many reasons,” Crown Prince Mohammed said.
The Saudi crown prince was referencing 1979’s Islamic Revolution in Iran and the siege of Mecca by terrorists that inspired a generation of militants such as al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.
“We are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe,” he said. “Frankly speaking, we cannot spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today and immediately.”
The kingdom also recently hosted its first women’s professional squash tournament. The PSA Saudi Women’s Masters, one of the sport’s most prestigious tournaments, saw Saudi wildcard entrant Riyadh-born Nada Abo Alnaja, 32, in the main draw.
Alnaja, who was the first Saudi woman to participate in the event, was eliminated in a first-round match by world No. 3-ranked Camille Serme. Still, Alnaja described the event as a dream come true.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I would one day stand here, in front of a Saudi crowd, playing Camille,” she told SquashSite.
“When I was hitting the ball for hours in my club in Jeddah, looking like a crazy woman, I would never have imagined where it would take me.”
There was also the announcement of the first woman to head a diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia. Belgium’s envoy to the United Arab Emirates Dominique Mineur is to take up the post in Riyadh this summer.
Such developments are part of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform initiative, which looks to increase Saudi women’s roles in society and the labour market.
There were significant steps last year in that regard, including relaxing restrictions on Saudi women, capped with a reversal of the female driving ban. This was preceded by easing aspects of the kingdom’s male guardianship system, granting women independent access to government services, jobs, education and healthcare, without the need for prior consent.
The kingdom’s consultative council has been debating the issue of child marriages, with the goal of raising the minimum age requirement of marriage to 18, even if the bride or her family consent.
If the motion becomes law, it would be the case for both men and women but the issue of child marriages mostly affects the kingdom’s female population.