Saudi Arabia Women's Rights: Private School Girls Now Allowed to Play Sports

The only time baby steps should be hailed as victories is in the context of someone giving up sugar or chocolates, but we all have to take a step back and marvel at what's going on in Saudi Arabia.

Private schools girls in Saudi Arabia have already engaged in sports programs but now they are sanctioned by the government to do so. This may seem archaic and meaningless from the outside but women in Saudi Arabia are experiencing "dizzying" changes, as TIME magazine Middle East Bureau Chief Aryn Baker describes.

"Over the last few years, there have been several attempts to incorporate physical education into public schools, but they [were] met with a lot of resistance. I think [the Saudi government is] trying to gauge if society is more receptive or if there is still resistance," prominent Saudi women's issues educator and writer Eman al-Nafjan surmises to CNN. 

Al-Nafjan calls the new regulations announced by Saudi Education Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Dakhini on Saturday a "feeler" to test public reaction on expanding sports to public schools in the next baby step in women's rights reforms.

Saudia Arabia allowed two female Olympians to participate for the first time in its history in the 2012 games held in London. This was a concession earned after a massive campaign was launched by multiple human rights groups to have the country's male athletes banned from the games. 

Al-Nafjan called the two Olympians "role models for girls" who love to play sports but do so without any facilities. Nonetheless Sarah Attar (pictured above), who competed in the 800-meter race, and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who competed in judo, were ignored by the national press when they presented their men's teams.

Given that Saudi press was hiding its female athletes merely a year ago this announcement from the Saudi government is a small but assured step forward, and is likely to be followed by another babiest of baby steps in expanding sports and fitness education. Proof: earlier this year on March 31, Saudi newspaper al Watan announced that the government will be licensing women's sports clubs and gyms, which until now were functioning under the pseudonym of "health centers."

Saudi women can also ride bikes in public (accompanied by a male guardian) as of April 2013, and will be able to vote and run for elections in 2015. Again, this sounds oppressive but right now Saudi women can not drive, and their male guardians get notified via text message every time they leave the country. Saudi Arabia even launched its first ever domestic abuse prevention campaign with a stark and effective promotional poster that has impressed women's rights activists around the world.

Much of this reform is being attributed to the Saudi King Abdullah. Earlier in April, King Abdullah announced that for the first time in history that not just one, but thirty women would be appointed to the country's consultative Shura Council which functions as the nation's parliament. The women now represent 20% of the legislative body, which has always been a male-dominated entity. 

King Abdullah's historic gesture comes from his desire for women "to work, he has given them scholarships [to Western universities], and now, with the Shura, he is tackling the most difficult issue in our society today: segregation. If you can get rid of segregation, then most of our problems will be solved,” says Fawzia al-Bakr, a women’s rights activist and professor at King Saud University.

Regardless of how far behind Saudi Arabia may still be, these changes are historic in nature and being given royal momentum coming from the King. Nonetheless, King Abdullah is 88, and does not have too much time to enact the broad reforms some believe he is envisioning. The hard-right fundamentalists are still the majority in Saudi Arabia, and definitely have the loudest voices, which is why these baby step reforms may be the only way forward.

While writing this piece I reached out al-Nafjan on Twitter for her opinion of the next solid victory for women's rights in Saudi Arabia and her response may indicate Saudi Arabia is ready to take toddler steps now: