The Saudi education ministry on Tuesday announced that the ultraconservative kingdom would begin offering physical education for girls in public schools — a first in a country known as one of the most gender-segregated in the world. While no details have yet been offered on what sports or activities will be offered for girls, Saudi officials said that the transition would be gradual and made “in accordance with the rules of sharia.” The announcement came less than a month after King Salman loosened the country’s infamous guardianship laws so that women could access health care and education without the permission of a male guardian.
Conservatives in Saudi Arabia have long been opposed to women’s sports. Some conservatives worry that wearing sportswear might make women immodest — still others claim that sports are contrary to women’s “nature” and that developing muscles makes women too masculine.
“The whole thing is about the idea of protecting a woman’s femininity,” explained Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian. “This decision is important, especially for public schools. It is essential that girls around the kingdom have the opportunity to build their bodies, to care for their bodies and to respect their bodies.”
Fifty years on from the opening of the first girls’ school in country, schools in Saudi Arabia remain segregated by gender. Four years ago, Saudi Arabia first opened the doors to girls sports in private schools. Previously, girls whose families allowed them to take part in sports had to restrict themselves to private settings.
Despite the excitement generated by the new announcement, Fassi said that the complete absence of any trained female gym teachers and the lack of sports facilities at the majority of girls’ schools would mean that actual progress would lag behind government rhetoric.
“It is very hard,” said Fassi, “because you are starting something from scratch.”
Despite the lack of opportunity, that hasn’t stopped some women in Saudi Arabia from excelling in athletics. A shining example of that phenomenon is Raha Moharrak, who at the age of 27 became the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest. Moharrak appeared at the Women in the World New York Summit back in April and reflected on her remarkable feat. “I felt both massive and tiny in the universe,” she said. “I was born in the desert and fell in love with mountains and felt humbled to prove to little girls that we are capable of whatever we dream of.” She also talked about the important role sports play in life and why more girls and women in Saudi Arabia should be exposed to them. Watch the full interview below.
Read the full story at The New York Times.