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Recently, the Saudi Shura council, the kingdom’s premier consultative body debated on and passed a motion in favour of introducing physical education for girls in public schools.

Those in the majority voted in favour of the motion permitting girls to perform physical exercises within the school premises in a way that conforms to the Islamic law or Sharia. Their argument that obesity and obesity-related diseases were on the rise among women and that physical fitness lessons would benefit children helped sway the doubters in the council.

The council, not unlike the Federal National Council in the UAE directed the Ministry of Education to review their recommendations and begin drafting plans for the training of female teachers in physical education who would serve as coaches and mentors for the pupils. Once the ministry has finalised its programmes and plans, it would submit the final package to the Saudi cabinet for final approval.

Internationally, the move was welcomed as one more step towards advancing the rights of females in a country that has its share of rebuke from the international community for some of the restrictive practices observed in sections of society. The director of Human Rights Watch for the region stated that, “The Shura Council vote shows that the Saudi government can buck the conservative establishment and take steps to end discriminatory practices against women when it wants to. It’s a good sign that Saudi authorities appear to realise letting all girls in Saudi Arabia play sports is important to their physical and mental wellbeing.”

Locally, the move was welcomed as more and more cases of diabetes among families and especially among women is on the rise. However there was a segment among Saudi society that did not welcome the decision by the Shura Council and boldly decided to make their objections heard. This band of rejectionists has been in the news in the past for rejecting a number of progressive issues and specially female-related ones.

They had once argued against education for girls or the spread of television. They were against mobile phones and the internet. They were against females being allowed to travel or move about without a guardian, or even check themselves into a hospital. They argued against the employment of women and allowing women to drive their own cars. The list of objections over the years goes on and on and would probably fill a whole page of this newspaper.

This culture of rejection of all progressive values remains embedded among these conservative individuals who are predominantly men. Last week a loose band of such individuals marched towards the headquarters of the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh to express their displeasure at the recent decision by the Shura Council and demanded that the motion be retracted.

They accused liberal elements within the council of promoting ‘wicked western values’ that would lead to the degradation of Saudi society. And they took to social media to express their displeasure. Abdullah Al Dawood, a Saudi cleric with a considerable following tweeted, “If we keep silent about the step of adding PE classes to girls’ schools then we are giving the Shura Council a green light to continue the steps of westernisation and these steps will end in infidelity and prostitution.”

Upholding practices of past

It is ironic that while the cleric is so adamant against westernisation, he fails to realise that he is using the products of westernisation such as his vehicle, his mobile phone, his internet or Twitter to promote his values. Others among these self-appointed guardians of the faith called for the ‘entire resignation of Saudi Arabia’s most senior council of clerics’, for their failure to uphold the strict practices of the past and deviate to ‘western’ ways.

The barriers against the exclusion of women in Saudi society are falling albeit slowly. But they are falling and for many people there is no going back. Rejectionists and their hard-line interpretations and customs are giving way to a more tolerant Saudi society which is beginning to understand its responsibility as peaceful Muslims who rebuff the marginalisation of women.

Said one Saudi after this group’s objections became public: “I think they act as if they are the only guardians of Muslims and no one else can save our wives and daughters from hell, but the reality is that they are looking for fame and leaving their work and responsibility and riding in western automobiles to express their objection.”

Another added: “They want to return us back 2000 years — the state should not listen to them and subject them to laws of illegal gathering and protest. I do not know the reason for dismay — The practice of women’s sport falls within the essentials of religion in taking care of their physical bodies, and save them from exposure to illnesses and disease.”

And finally one ‘fed-up’ Saudi who added: “Their whole purpose is to gain control of some of the ignorant among us and draw them to their ways. They think of themselves as guardians of the community. They are opposed to any step towards progress... they only want a Taliban-style state!”

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena