(Beirut) – In a welcome move that could advance rights for women and girls, Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council has directed the Education Ministry to study the possibility of introducing physical education for girls in Saudi public schools. The council, the kingdom’s highest consultative body, voted overwhelmingly – 92 votes to 18 – in favor of the recommendation, but the Ministry of Education must draft and present regulations, and the Shura Council and Cabinet must approve them before sports for girls in public schools becomes a reality, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Shura Council vote shows that the Saudi government can buck the conservative establishment and take steps to end discriminatory practices against women when it wants to,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “It’s a good sign that Saudi authorities appear to realize letting all girls in Saudi Arabia play sports is important to their physical and mental wellbeing.”
Saudi authorities previously ruled in May 2013 that female students enrolled in private girls’ schools could take part in sports so long as they wear “decent clothing” and are supervised by female Saudi instructors within the tight regulations of the country’s Education Ministry. On May 22, 2013, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Saudi Arabia’s Education Ministry requesting a timetable for the adoption of a proposed national strategy to promote sports for girls at all levels of education, but did not receive a response.
As Human Rights Watch documented in its February 2012 report, “‘Steps of the Devil’: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia,” Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that still effectively bars girls from taking part in sport in government schools. There is no state sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sports clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees restricted to men. Discrimination against girls and women in sports still takes place at multiple levels in the kingdom, including:
- The continued denial of girls’ physical education in state schools;
- The denial of women’s representation on national sports bodies, which means there are no competitive sports events for Saudi women athletes in the kingdom; and
- The denial of government financial support for Saudi sportswomen in national, regional, or international competitions.
Human Rights Watch said that these restrictions violate Saudi Arabia’s international obligations and are also in clear contravention of the Olympic Charter’s non-discrimination clause.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to set out a clear strategy and accelerated timeline for rolling out physical education for girls in public and private schools, to lift its ban on licensing gyms for women, and to instruct the General Presidency for Sport and Youth Welfare – the kingdom’s sports regulatory body – and the National Olympic Committee to open women’s sections and to demand the admission of women members in all sports each body oversees in the kingdom.
After delays and resistance, Saudi Arabia finally agreed to allow two female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in the 2012 London Olympics: Wujdan Shahrkhani, in judo, and Sarah Attar, in track and field. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) hailed the change, with the president, Jacques Rogge, announcing: “For the first time in Olympic history, all the participating teams will have female athletes. This is a major boost for gender equality.”
The Education Ministry has previously given indications that it might approve sports programs for girls in government schools. In December 2011, the Deputy Minister for Girls’ Affairs, Nora al-Fayez, wrote to Human Rights Watch:
The issue of girls’ physical education is under serious consideration as one of the priorities of the ministry’s leadership that regards physical education in schools as one of the necessities helping male and female students to stay healthy. The ministry is currently working on a comprehensive educational curriculum, starting with laying the infrastructure for the project and finishing with health and nutritional education, all within the national strategy for girls’ and boys’ physical education.
The government recently has carried out encouraging, modest reforms for women over the last two years, Human Rights Watch said, including a law criminalizing domestic abuse for the first time.
However, Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or even a son. Authorities also fail to prevent some employers from requiring male guardians to approve hiring adult female relatives or some hospitals from requiring male guardian approval for certain medical procedures for women. All women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia has a long way to go to end discriminatory practices against women, but allowing girls to play sports in government schools would move the ball down the field in ways that could have major long-term impact,” Whitson said.