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Saudi Arabia relaxes ban on school sports for girls

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Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani (top) competes in the London 2012 Olympic Games

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Girls in Saudi Arabia are to be allowed to take part in school sports for the first time in the latest sign that the Islamic kingdom is inching forward on the contentious issue of women’s rights.

Female students enrolled in private girls’ schools will be able to take part as long as they wear ‘decent clothing’ and are supervised by female Saudi instructors within the tight regulations of the country’s Ministry of Education, the official Saudi Press Agency announced Sunday.

“I think it’s a really good idea,” said Hala Tashkandi, a junior student of Applied Linguistics at Prince Sultan University, a private college in the capital, Riyadh. “Physical education for girls is sorely lacking, which is a shame because some of the best athletes I know are female.”

However, most girls are educated in public schools where the rules forbidding female competitive sports will not be relaxed.

It means school sport will remain restricted to members of the wealthy elite, despite the country’s need for more female athletes. Last year, the country's first two female Olympians took part in the London games following pressure from the International Olympic Committee which signaled at the Beijing 2008 games that it would no longer allow countries to restrict entry on the basis of gender.

Sarah Attar competed in the women’s 800m race, while Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani took part in judo after a deal was reached with officials allowing her to wear her hijab.

Saudi women are barred from driving and must seek the permission of a male "guardian", usually a father, husband or brother, to marry, travel abroad, open a bank account, work or have some forms of elective surgery.

Until recently, it seemed Saudi Arabia’s vocal minority of zealots were winning the ideological battle and sustaining the marginalization of women, but recent announcements suggest the tide may finally be turning.

Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia competes in the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Last week, a campaign featuring domestic abuse was launched to raise awareness in a country where such subjects are still considered largely taboo.

In January, the country’s reform-minded monarch, King Abdallah, appointed 30 women to the Shura Council despite a huge backlashfrom the religious establishment and comments on twitter and local blogs that branded them “infidels” and women of “loose character.”

Manal Sanai a final year student at Najd, a private girls’ school in central Riyadh, said she was excited by news about school sports. “Most girls don’t know their potential in sports because of the lack of exposure to any kind of physical activity and this will be a good chance to develop their talents,” she said.

Sports and activities such as dancing do take place, but only in private clubs with membership fees of upwards of $2,000 a year and can still be raided by the Mutawwa – or religious police.

Jan. 15: NBC News producer Lubna Hussain is a London-born Saudi citizen.  She writes a column for Arab News, a prominent Saudi publication.  She also hosts a public affairs talk show called "Bridges" on Saudi television.  She shared her observations about the current status of women in Saudi Arabia.

Afaf Al Hamdan, the former manager of the Al Manahil Center for Women, which runs several physical educational programs catering to the city’s wealthy elite, questioned why sport would not be extended to public schools.

“The big bulk of students are in government schools and don’t have the means to pay for private clubs,” she said. “If these classes are run in a female environment with students dressed properly, then there is nothing against Sharia [law].

“All women in this country, unlike those of my generation who had never even heard of exercise, should have access to the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.”

That sentiment was echoed by Tashkandi, who pointed out that the Olympians Shaherkhani and Attar were only given two weeks to train because of wrangles over their participation.

“There’s so much potential and it could be incredibly helpful in terms of their physical and mental health as well,” she said.

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