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Majority of Saudis favour women’s right to sports

November 19, 2013

A vast majority of Saudis favour women having the right to fully engage in sport, according to a Saudi Arabian sociology researcher.

In a country that has no official facilities for female athletes or physical education programs for girls in schools, Mariam Dujain Al-Kaabi has put forward a series of recommendations for womens sport and activity programs to the Saudi Government.

Her recommendations coincide with the Saudi Government's development of its first ever national sports plan - albeit for men only.

As part of her master thesis, Al-Kaabi surveyed 312 Saudis active in education with an even split between men and women. She found that 73.5% of her respondents unambiguously endorsed a woman's right to engage in sport while 21.6% felt that their right should be conditional.

Published by Ash-Sharq newspaper, the study countered conservative opposition in the Kingdom that asserts that allowing women to engage in sports would have negative social consequences.

Al Kaabi's study was published as the Kingdom debates granting women the right to engage in sport, attend sporting events in stadia, enjoy physical education in state-run schools and, on a non-sporting issue, be allowed to drive.

While many members of the ruling elite, including King Abdullah, are believed to favour granting women greater rights, the Government has so far shied away from confronting conservative clerics who condemn women's sports as corrupting and satanic and charge that it would spread decadence. The clerics warn that running and jumping could damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.

Saudi Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaydan cautioned in September as women launched an online campaign to demand their right to drive that driving could affect their ovaries and pelvises. Sheikh Al-Luhaydan, a legal and psychology consultant to the Gulf Psychological Association, quickly became the target of ridicule on social media with Saudis sarcastically congratulating him for his scientific discovery.

An Arabic Twitter hashtag 'Women_driving_affects_ovaries_and_pelvises' went viral.

The Saudi Government is hesitant to confront conservative elements of the clergy at a time that it is trying to protect the Kingdom against the wave of discontent and protest that has been sweeping the Middle East and North Africa for almost three years.

While Saudi Arabia, a country where demonstrations are constitutionally banned, has not witnessed mass protests, it has experienced multiple expressions of demands for change, including protests in the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, home to its oil reserves; demonstrations in the arch conservative town of Buraidah, a bulwark of Saudis puritan Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, demanding the release of political prisoners; protests against princes who own football clubs in stadia and online; a women's campaign for the right to drive; and an outpouring of criticism of the ruling family on social media.

Human Rights Watch last year accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil".

Saudi Football Federation (SFF) President Ahmed Eid Alharbi, a former goalkeeper who became the Kingdom's first elected sports official after his predecessor, a member of the ruling family, was forced under fan pressure to step down, hinted in September at the positive economic impact of allowing women to attend soccer matches would have.

He said that the creation of facilities for women would increase capacity at stadiums by 15%.

Alharbi later qualified his remarks by saying that the decision to lift the ban on women was not his, stating "a decision like this is a sovereign decision.

"Neither I nor SAFF can make it. Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision."

The Government has b

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