Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

There's never a dull moment when it comes to women's issues in Saudi Arabia. And invariably there are men in the background orchestrating the plays that have made life very difficult for women.

In the latest such drama, some private Saudi girls' high schools are being brought to book by the Ministry of Education for holding an "illegal" sports tournament. According to Ahmad Al Zahrani, director of girls' education in Jeddah, the intra-school event, in which 200 female students from six Jeddah high schools participated, broke ministry rules against girls' sports in schools. "We don't have any regulations that say that it's okay for girls' schools to hold sports classes or training. This tournament was held by these schools, something that has now led us to know about their illegal activities," said Al Zahrani.

The tournament was hosted by the private Effat University, named after the late King Faisal's wife who pioneered education for girls in the kingdom, and included basketball, badminton, swimming and athletics. That did not stop school administrators from coming under fire.

"I was surprised to receive a letter from the Ministry of Education questioning me about the competition and the reason why it was held in the first place," the principal of one of the schools told reporters. "I also received a huge number of letters and telephone calls from conservative Saudi men and shaikhs who said that I should've known better and advised me not to hold such competitions in the future because it's not lady-like," she added.

In a country where women's access to public sports activities is nil, where sports are prohibited at primary and secondary schools for girls, and where women cannot participate in the Saudi Olympics team, and are not allowed to attend public football matches, it is ironic that these girls are freely allowed to smoke the argeela (water pipe) which is so harmful to their health and yet are denied the opportunity for physical education in their schools.

Rising social phenomenon

Teenage girls who should be letting off some steam on a basketball or tennis court are instead sucking up to a fast rising social phenomenon that has crossed over the age barrier and now is a fad among the young. Apart from a disturbing percentage of women with diabetes in the kingdom, are we not spawning a generation of women who will be afflicted with cancer as well? Why are we so afraid to allow our girls to participate in physical education activities in our schools? Why could we not have sent a delegation of Saudi women athletes to an all-women's athletic meet of Gulf Cooperation Council members being held in Kuwait, as other countries of the GCC have done? Saudi Arabia is a prominent member of the GCC, and for it to fail in its obligation to the kingdom's women's athletes is not an encouraging sign.

It is certainly not our religion that forbids such activities, and judging from the reactions of most of those around me, it is certainly not many of the people. Then why do we continue to bar any physical activities that encourage the promotion of health among our girls and women?

Are we afraid of empowering women or allowing them control over their own bodies? Do we fear that by providing them such an opportunity, we are leading them to a path of deviancy and deprivation?

Why do we men assume such nobility upon ourselves and yet deny those very rights to our womenfolk? Is it fear that by empowering women over their bodies men would lose their control? Some would say our society does not allow for such activities. ‘Balderdash' is my response. Our society, which some have perversely twisted to mean such a ‘special place', is no different from any other Muslim country. We are no better or worse than people elsewhere.

And until we get that through our heads, that we are in no way different or special from others, we will continue to wallow in such deplorable customs that allow young girls to puff away their health, and yet be denied to sweat away their energies in a more productive fashion.

If small groups of extreme-minded people insist on imposing their views on the school authorities, the Ministry of Education must resist such callous and irrational arguments and be bold enough to declare Physical Education as part of the syllabus in Girls Schools for the coming year. By providing such an outlet, perhaps some of these girls may be discouraged from letting their health go up in smoke.

However today, with a few women-only private clubs and private women's universities offer sporting possibilities, the waterpipe seems to be the only viable alternative. And a Happy New Year to all of you.

 Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudisocio-political commentator. He livesin Jeddah.