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WATCH: How Saudi women interacted with the first mixed public sporting event

Women in black abayas and fluorescent orange vests stood at the gates at King Abdullah Stadium, welcoming people into the family section that, for the first time in Saudi Arabia, allowed women to attend a men's soccer match.

As the two teams al-Ahli and al-Batin faced each other in the city of Jeddah, women showed up to their first public sporting event in the Kingdom to support the sides with their spouses, children and friends.

The General Sports Authority announced in October that stadiums in Jeddah, Dammam and Riyadh will be set up to accommodate families starting in 2018.



"Honestly this decision should have happened a long time ago," said Muneera al-Ghamdi, an attendee. "But thank god that it came in the right time, and hopefully what's to come will be even more beautiful for women."

The decision to allow women to attend a mixed public sporting event is one of many changes the country has undergone in recent months, hailed as proof of a new progressive trend.

On Thursday, Jeddah held Saudi Arabia's first car exhibition aimed at women, a few months after Saudi Arabia announced it would grant them the right to drive..



A soccer match on Saturday in the capital Riyadh will also be welcoming women fans.

"Today the percentage of those who participate in exercise and sports is only 13 percent," said Hayfaa al-Sabban, who heads a sport organisation.

"We aim god willing to raise it to 40 percent by 2030, through several events, and today's is one of these events."

The presence of women in the sports stadium underscored a wider effort to integrate women in society and grant them more public visibility in a country where gender segregation is widely enforced and where most women cover their faces and hair with black veils and don loose-flowing black robes, known as abayas.

 

The first stadium to open its doors to women was in the Red Sea city of Jiddah. The stadium in the capital, Riyadh, will open to women on Saturday, followed by the western city of Dammam on Thursday.

At the Jiddah stadium Friday, young Saudi women wearing bright orange vests over their abayas were deployed to help with the female crowds. "Welcome to Saudi families," read a sign in Arabic erected across the section of the stadium reserved for women.

 

"It's very festive and very well organized. A lot of people are just really happy to be here. I think there's a lot of excitement when you walked in, especially among the children," said Sarah Swick of the match between Saudi soccer teams Al-Ahli and Al-Batin.

To prepare for the change, the kingdom designated "family sections" in the stands for women, separated by barriers from the male-only crowds. The stadiums were also fitted with female prayer areas and restrooms, as well as separate entrances and parking lots for female spectators. Local media said women would also have their own designated smoking areas.

 

 

Although only 20 riyals ($5.33) a ticket, the family section for Friday's match was still less than half full.

"A lot of people wanted to wait and see how it is. Some thought it wouldn't be very safe or organized," said Swick, who attended the game with her Saudi husband and son, and her American mother.

Swick, who grew up in Maryland and has been living in Saudi Arabia for the past nine years, has attended football games in the U.S. and soccer matches in France, but said she was impressed with how organized Friday night's match was.
"I definitely think we will come back," she said.

An Arabic hashtag on Twitter about women entering stadiums garnered tens of thousands of tweets on Friday, with some using the hashtag to share photos of female spectators wearing their team's colors in scarves thrown over their black abayas.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the driving force behind the loosened restrictions on women.

 

Set to inherit a country where more than half the population is under 25 years old and hungry for change, the young crown prince has implemented reforms, which include allowing movie theaters to open in March after a more than 35-year ban.

In a one-off, the stadium in Riyadh allowed families to enter and watch National Day festivities in September - marking the first time women had set foot inside.

The move was the first of Saudi Arabia's social reforms planned for this year to ease restrictions on women, spearheaded by the kingdom's 32-year-old crown prince. The kingdom has also announced that starting in June women will be allowed to drive, lifting the world's only ban on female drivers.

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Last Update: Saturday, 13 January 2018 KSA 19:36 - GMT 16:36
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