Still a sore point
Restrictions on what activities the gyms will be allowed to offer reflects the power of an ultra-conservative religious establishment and segment of society critical of the long overdue reforms that have become inevitable as a result of sharply reduced oil revenues and the need to enhance Saudi competitivity in a 21st century knowledge-driven global economy.
At least two years in the making, the licensing rules announced by Princess Reema bint Bandar, vice president of women′s affairs of the General Authority of Sports, the kingdom′s sports czar, focus on Prince Mohammed′s plans laid out in a document entitled Vision 2030. The plans involve streamlining government expenditure, including public health costs in a country that boasts one of the world′s highest rates of obesity and diabetes.
″It is not my role to convince society,″ Princess Reema commented on announcing the licensing. ″My role is focused on enabling our girls to live a healthy lifestyle away from diseases that result from obesity and a lack of movement.″
A gym in every district
Princess Reema, the kingdom′s first ever women′s sports official, hopes to open gyms in every district and neighbourhood in the kingdom. The move constitutes progress in a country that has yet to introduce sports in state girls′ schools and offers no public facilities for women′s sports.
For several years now, commercially run gyms catering primarily to upper and upper middle class women as well as privately organised women′s sports teams have been operating in Saudi Arabia in something of a legal grey area.
Princess Reema indicated that gyms would be licensed to focus on activities such as swimming, running and bodybuilding, but not for sports such as football, volleyball, basketball and tennis. The licensing rules are in line with a policy articulated in 2014 by Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia′s Olympic Committee. At the time, Mr. Al-Mishal, responding to pressure by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said women would only be allowed to compete in disciplines that were "accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia" and conform to a literal interpretation of the Koran. Mr. Al-Mishal identified such sports as equestrian, fencing, shooting and archery.
Emphasising individual rather than team sports, they also reflect an idea which had to be abandoned several years ago when producing a national plan for men′s sports. The idea of shifting the focus away from team sports was intended to limit the potential of football becoming a venue of anti-government protest, as it had in Egypt and elsewhere during the 2011 popular Arab revolts. It proved unrealistic given that Saudi Arabia, like most nations in the region, is football crazy. Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that it would privatise five of the kingdom′s top football clubs.
The limits of Vision 2030
Women′s sports is one litmus test of Saudi Arabia′s ability to tackle its social, political and economic challenges head on and move forward with Prince Mohammed′s outline of how the government hopes to diversify the economy, streamline its bloated bureaucracy and safeguard the Al Saud′s grip on power.
Vision 2030 identifies sport ″as a mainstay of a healthy and balanced lifestyle″ and promises ″to encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities.″
The licensing of women′s gyms is going ahead despite the fact that Vision 2030 makes no mention of facilities for women. The document also fails to even implicitly address demands by the IOC and human rights groups that women be allowed to compete freely in all athletic disciplines rather than only ones mentioned in the Koran. The Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, headed by Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed, reported in 2014 that up to 74 percent of adults and 40 percent of children are believed to be overweight or obese.
″Women in Saudi Arabia are being killed softly by their government. Not by public executions or brutal rapes and beatings, but by day-to-day restrictions imposed on them by their government… It must be understood that restrictions on women′s sports and physical activity have nothing to do with culture or religion, but rather, are fuelled by the ruling elite as a means to control the population. As long as the Saudi government continues to claim that such bans are a result of cultural and personal practices, women will continue to suffer a decline in physical and mental health, as well as their social, economic and political status,″ the report asserted.
Obesity and Vitamin D deficiency rife
It said that the restrictions amounted to ″an almost completely sedentary lifestyle forced on women by the government through a de facto ban on physical education and sports participation for women that stems from the Wahhabi imperative of ′keeping women unseen′.″
Saudi media have reported that a lack of exposure to sunshine has led to vitamin D deficiency among 80 percent of Saudi women.
A Human Rights Watch report concluded last year that ″inside Saudi Arabia, widespread discrimination still hampers access to sports for Saudi women and girls, including in public education.″
The group noted that Saudi women were denied access to state sports infrastructure and barred from participating in national tournaments and state-organised sports leagues as well as attending men′s national team matches as spectators. Women have difficulty accessing the 170 clubs that are regulated by the General Authority, which organises tournaments only for men.
Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to demonstrate its sincerity by making physical education for girls mandatory in all state schools; ensuring that women can train to teach physical education in schools; establishing sports federations for women and allowing them to compete domestically and internationally; supporting women who want to compete in international sporting competitions on an equal footing with men; and allowing women to attend sporting events involving men′s national teams.
″Saudi authorities need to address gender discrimination in sports, not just because it is required by international human rights law, but because it could have lasting benefits for the health and well-being of the next generation of Saudi girls,″ Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives Minky Worden said at the time.
James M. Dorsey
© Qantara.de 2017