Can Saudi Arabian girls finally play sports in public schools? Not yet.
After conflicting media reports this week, the country's education minister said that he would not be mandating phys ed in public girls’ schools—appearing to ignore the recommendation of a government advisory board chosen by the King. Human-rights groups say they are still trying to get to the bottom of it, but when (and if) allowed, physical education won't be required.
Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on sports in private girls' schools in 2013, but it still applies to girls in public schools.
Members of a Saudi female soccer team at a training session at a secret location in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
“Saudi Arabia is still denying access to sports in state-run schools as a matter of policy,” said Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives with Human Rights Watch, the non-governmental organization that investigates human-rights crises around the world.
“Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that has this policy to deny access to physical education in government-run schools,” she told Fusion on Wednesday.
Last year the Shoura Council, a government advisory board chosen by the Saudi king, asked the Education Ministry to consider including sports for girls in state-run schools—as long as they conformed to Shariah rules on “decent dress codes” and gender segregation.
Members of a Saudi female soccer team practice at a secret location in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Giving females access to exercise and sports had been shunned by ultraconservatives in this male-dominated Kingdom that remains the only country in the world where women are also banned from driving. Schools, and many public areas, are segregated by gender. Females also must have a male relative serve as their “guardian” who can grant them permission to travel, study and even work.
Saudi Arabia is slowly making strides: A handful of Saudi women are members of the Shoura Council which recommended having sports in girls schools. Saudi female athletes began participating in the Olympics in 2012. And women will be allowed to vote this year and may even be able to run for municipal elections.
Still, Worden and other human-rights organizations say the race to end gender discrimination hasn’t gone far enough.
“When women and girls are denied the fundamental right to exercise, watch, or compete, we all lose out,” Worden wrote in a dispatch for HRW.
Girls play basketball at a court field in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
Last December a Saudi woman was arrested for attending a football match in Jeddah while apparently disguised as a man, the newspaper Saudi Gazette reported. Saudi Arabia and Iran bar females from attending public sporting events as spectators. Sepp Blatter, the chief of FIFA, appealed this week to Iran to end the londstanding stadium ban for women.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former Secretary of State and presumptive 2016 presidential candidate, weighed in on the progress with gender equality across the world this week, saying “we are not there yet.” Clinton, who spoke at the United Nations’ Women Empowerment Principles event earlier, added: “Full participation of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind.”