Manama: In a break with social traditions, girls in Saudi Arabia’s private schools have been allowed to play sports.
The breakthrough decision was announced in a circular to all education ministry departments by the minister, Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah, a strong supporter of promoting knowledge and good health.
“The exercise of sports is a legitimate right for young men and women within moral perimeters,” he once told reporters. “There can be no existence for women without men and for men without women. We hope that sports are within the context that best fits us best. If we fully realise the significance of knowledge and sports, we will certainly not object,” he said, quoted by local Arabic daily Al Eqtisadiya.
The education ministry’s circular insisted on the “adoption of a set of requirements that will regulate health fitness activities in girls’ schools”.
The ministry said that the decision was based on Islamic tenets that allowed women to engage in athletic activities “within religion-sanctioned regulations”.
Schools will have to be properly equipped for the sports programmes and will ensure that the girls wear “decent clothes”, the ministry said.
“Priority for overseeing the health fitness activities should be given to well-qualified Saudi teachers as per the employment requirements in the private sector,” the ministry said. “Intensive training to qualify physical education teachers should also be held according to the needs of schools.”
The ministry said that the decision to formally allow girls to play sports was taken following reports that some private schools launched physical education activities based on personal efforts and were not “subject to specific controls or regulatory framework that achieve the educational interest of the students and take into account their overall health”.
With strict bans on women engaging in sports publicly or in schools or universities, health fitness clubs have opened up, mainly in the eastern part of the country.
However, their high fees have often narrowed their membership to the country’s elite.
Women in Saudi Arabia have been steadily making progress towards greater social and political benefits, especially since King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz assumed power in August 2005.
In January, 30 women were appointed to the exclusively male Shura Council in a landmark decision.