Physical education for Saudi girls stirs debate

The move to introduce physical education for girls at schools is seen as another milestone in Saudi women’s human rights development

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A step to introduce physical education for girls at Saudi government schools has become the talk of the town in the kingdom, with many hailing it as a positive development and some slamming it as a threat to social values.

Last week, the government advisory Shura Council called on the country’s education ministry to look into including sports for girls at state-run schools on condition that they are in line with Sharia rules on dress and gender segregation, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Meanwhile, Mohammed al-Saleh, secretary-general of the Higher Education Council, told Monday that the next move would be to recruit sports educators from abroad.

A previous ban on physical education for girls was relaxed in private schools in 2013. The Shura Council’s demand last week to include state-run schools has been welcomed internationally both by the International Olympic Committee and Human Rights Watch.

“It’s a good sign that Saudi authorities appear to realize letting all girls in Saudi Arabia play sports is important to their physical and mental wellbeing,” Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch told Agence France Presse.

Al-Watan newspaper published a column on Monday with a title that read: “Would you marry a girl who practiced sports?” The columnist criticized and mocked opponents of the move.

He quoted a two-year old study showing that three-quarters of the country’s population suffered obesity and 75 percent of the women are obese and that 80 percent of secondary diabetes cases were related to obesity.

The article dismissed conservative voices that are critical of making girls play sports at schools. Some conservative clerics had denounced the move as a “Western innovation,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

One cleric Abdullah Al Dawood even tweeted that “these steps will end in infidelity and prostitution.”

Speaking to Al Arabiya News from Jeddah, veteran Saudi journalist Omar al-Mudwahi said there was nothing new in the clerical opposition to the move. “The religious institution has always stood against the advancement of women’s rights.”

Abdullah Hamidaddin, a Saudi writer and commentator on religion and politics, wrote in a recent column on Al Arabiya news that the Shura Counci’s move “is not a decision about girls practicing sports. Nor is it one about women rights. This is a decision to push back the authority of the religious institution.

“The easiest way to explain what happened is to say that there are zealots whose interpretation of Islamic scripture is misogynic and thus believe that the only option women have is to lie down and die. Thus the government decided to intervene and give women some hope of a natural life,” Hamidaddin added.

Journalist Mudwahi noted that the plan to introduce physical education for girls in public schools is part of comprehensive government response to high obesity rates among women.

“Municipalities across the kingdom are also creating long pedestrian walkways special for women especially after repeated health ministry figures showing high obesity and diabetes rates among women,” he said.

“Previously all physical education centers are extensions of hospitals as if it is a disease, as if female sports is a disease and it is very expensive,” al-Mudwahi said.

“As a man, it would cost me 300 riyals ($80) per month to go to gym. But it would cost my wife or my daughter about 1000 riyals ($266),” he explained.

He noted that unlike universities, most schools in the primary and secondary education are not equipped with physical education facilities for girls.

“This issue has been passed in the Shura Council, but the important question remains: Are our schools ready for such thing? Of course no,” he said. But within a few years, most schools are likely to have physical education facilities if there is a legal framework for girls to practice sport.

The Saudi Shura Council move is seen as another step empowering women during the reign of King Abdullah, after appointing women into the legislative Shura Council and allowing them to practice different professions which weren’t allowed before such as law.

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