Pulling the rug: girls’ sports and the erosion of Saudi religious authority

The Saudi government decided to lift the ban on sport education for school girls, why now?

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
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If you follow news on Saudi Arabia, then you would probably have read reports about the Saudi government’s decision to lift the ban on sport education for school girls. This was described as a step forward in the kingdom’s efforts to give women more rights amidst strong resistance from the country’s religious zealots. You may have also read about the ensuing debate between the Saudis who supported this decision and those who shunned it.

But, the first reaction to those debates was that of bewilderment. To listen to clerics warning of the dire consequences should girls play sport. To live in the 21st century, and still need to discuss if or not girls should practice sports in schools is mystifying. To be using Twitter and YouTube to argue against such basic issues is disorienting! Are we really having this discussion? Sadly we are. But then, when I gave it more thought, I realized how important this was in changing the structure of authority in the country.

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. This explanation is made easier by the fact that zealots from all religions have this negative attitude towards women and it is only governments who can keep them at bay.

This 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

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Appealing as the religious explanation maybe, I do not think that we should stop at it. The religious factor can explain the behavior of a very small number of people, but it cannot explain the behavior of a religious institution. More fundamentally it cannot explain the support from a wide section of the public. And I say this for one main reason; if the motive was religious then we would see an ongoing campaign against music and banks, both of which are considered much graver sins that girls performing sport. The religious institution is unanimous in its position against a financial system that allows interests on loans and that those who practice it will burn in hell. It is also unanimous that music is a grave sin, and those who enjoy it will also burn in hell. Yet we don’t see such mobilization against either. There is the occasional sermon or book but nothing more serious. The government was not fighting religious zealotry and the religious institutions were not conferenced with religious laws.

Fundamentals at stake

There is something more fundamental at stake. Something which makes a group of clerics go and visit the royal court. Something which impels a most senior cleric to assert in a defiant tone: “this will not pass!”

Religious agents in Saudi Arabia see themselves as co-governors. Their idea of government is of a partnership between a “prince and a cleric.” Of course this is not the case and has not been for the past hundred years. Instead they’ve had to contend with some authority on some aspects of family and public lives of Saudis. They were also given jobs; many jobs. As much as 25 percent of public sector jobs are within religious institutions, and with that there are many government projects.

Thus they will fight anything which threatens the little authority they have or the many jobs they control. Loss of authority is translated into loss of political and social prestige. But more importantly it will mean the loss of economic power. The billions of dollars which are accessible to them now may fade away.

How it has been done

Their strategy is simple: we will monopolize all decisions that pertain to the family; i.e. women. No matter how sensible the decision is, they have to be the ones to initiate and approve it and they will accept nothing else.

The problem is that they’re not a homogeneous group. There is competition amongst them. They’re like any elite: competitive, Machiavellian, pragmatic, and selfish. Being a religious elite, they compete over who is more pious and who is more conservative. This is a bad equation. As they all end up taking extreme positions. This means that they always prefer the status quo.

The logic goes like this: no one but us is allowed to change anything related to women and family. None of us is able to make a decision about women. So everything should stay the same. And if someone tries to change things, they fight.

But what makes the decision on sports very special and different from previous cases? It came as a recommendation from the Saudi Shura Council, which is an advisory council with no legislative powers. Should the government go ahead with the Council’s recommendation, then it would be a precedence whereby a “secular” body in Saudi Arabia overrides the religious institution. This 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. This is why they are fighting it aggressively.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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