Kuwait’s Qadsiya Club women basketball team members listen to their coach during the Women’s Games, at Salwa Al Sabah Sports Centre in Qurain, Kuwait, on Thursday. Image Credit: AP

KUWAIT CITY: Muneera Al Shatti has loved playing basketball since she was a child but it wasn’t until Thursday that she had a chance to show off her skills at a public arena in Kuwait.

As part of a new initiative launching sports leagues for women, Muneera and her team mates from Salwa Al Sabah club downed Qadsiya club 63-13 in a game that attracted several hundred men and female fans. The initiative to launch basketball, table tennis and athletic leagues for the first time in Kuwait illustrates how the landscape for women athletes is improving across the Gulf where hard-liners have long opposed women playing sports.

Several of the players, in deference to the conservative Muslim culture that is common across the Gulf, wore leggings and covered their heads with the hijab. Others, however, wore shorts and T-shirts.

“A competition like this should have happened a long time ago,” said Muneera, who has played in tournaments overseas and only heard about the league in her home country while playing in neighbouring Bahrain. “But I am glad it finally took place. We’ve been trying to do this for a long time and they have promised that more sports will be included in future leagues.”

Helped by government support, increased education and erosion of traditional values, football leagues for girls in the Gulf have started up in Qatar and the UAE. Saudi Arabia — which long barred girls from playing any sports — recently announced it would allow sports in private schools as long as they abide by the rules of Sharia, or Islamic law.

Saudi Arabia’s decision is part of a wider package of reforms targeting women with the aim of ending discriminatory practices that have contributed to a host of health problems, including obesity and diabetes. The private schools’ announcement also follows a decision last year in the kingdom to allow two female athletes to compete in the London Olympic Games following months of intense pressure from the International Olympics Committee.

Still, women’s sports remain nearly an underground activity in the kingdom, which is home to Islam’s holiest site in Makkah. Only the largest female university in the kingdom — Princess Noura Bint Abdul Rahman University — has a swimming pool, tennis court and exercise area for its students. No other university in Saudi Arabia has sports facilities for female students and staff.

Women are also bound by strict rules when it comes to their attire, so they cannot, for example, be seen by men while jogging in sweat pants. Female athletes cannot register for sports clubs or league competitions. They are banned from entering national trials, making it impossible for them to qualify for international competitions.

Kuwait is typical of the struggle women have endured in the Gulf.

The 1970s were described as the golden era where women were allowed to freely participate in sports in Kuwait, according to Naeema Al Sabah, the head of the Women’s Sports Federation. But in the ensuing decades, the influence of Islamic hard-liners grew in the country and sports for women all but disappeared. Hard-liners believe that sports will promote immoral behaviour and uniforms inappropriately reveal female bodies.

The low point came a few years back when a Kuwaiti women’s football team was publicly denounced after returning from playing a regional tournament in neighbouring UAE.

“We’re taking baby steps towards progress,” Naeema said. “As with any society that is religiously strict, we need to test the waters and take small steps. Everyone in Kuwait now values sports. You see people walking and jogging every day. There is this increasing interest in playing sports in general.”

Muneera said the best sign that things are changing was the number of women and girls who turned out for the basketball game. A music teacher who also cycles and jogs with her husband, Muneera is only hoping to get more chances to play.

“It felt like the first step towards a better future for sports for us here in Kuwait,” she said after her team’s victory.