Saudi officials often like to boast about the number of Saudi students abroad, especially in the United States. Mohammed al-Eisa, the Saudi cultural attaché in Washington DC, recently told Asharq al-Awsat that the number of Saudi students going to US schools has reached 66,000 during the last year. However, Saudi writer Mahmoud Sabbagh has raised some questions about the real number of Saudi students in the US. Sabbagh points to stats released by the Institute of International Education (IIE), which said that the number of Saudi students going to American schools in the academic year 2011/2012 is only 34,139 students. According to IIE, a DC-based non-profit organization, this number represents a 50 percent increase from the previous year, but this is still much smaller than the numbers often repeated by Saudi higher education officials. China, India and South Korea are the top three countries sending students to the US. Saudi Arabia is fourth.
Introducing physical education to public girls schools has been a challenge for the government, but it seems that they have finally managed to make some progress. Al-Hayat daily reported Wednesday that the General Administration of Education in the Eastern Province has launched the first ever recreational club for girls in the region as part of King Abdullah Project for Development of Education.
According to the newspaper, the club that was opened at the 22nd Girls’ Secondary Schools in Dammam provides recreational and sports programs for weight loss and a basketball court. Club’s manager Mariam al-Shammari told the paper they only have capacity of 400 students, admitting that it is “small,” but she said “they are looking forward to achieve positive outcomes.”
Al-Watan reported one day earlier that 24 out of 25 public girls schools in the Eastern Province have refused to offer physical education classes to their students, despite taking part at the development program. Citing unnamed sources, the newspaper said the only reason behind the refusal is the fear that parents would object to the step. The newspaper added that senior officials at the General Administration of Education in the Eastern Province are also against the idea of introducing PE classes at girls schools for the same reason.
The only school which took the step was the 2nd Girls’ Secondary School in Khobar. Ahlam al-Amer, headmistress of the school, told al-Watan that both parents and senior officials were unhappy when the school began allowing students to play basketball last year. But eventually everyone accepted the idea that they opposed at first, she said, and now they offer to present their experience at other schools.
When the Saudi Ministry of Education said few years ago that they intend to introduce sports to public girls schools, conservative clerics responded with fatwas denouncing the plans. Speaking to a local TV channel, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Alsheikh declared, “women should be housewives,” and “there is no need for them to engage in sports.” A preacher named Mohammed al-Habdan published a list of fourteen “evils” that would result from introducing sports to girls schools, including taking the veil off and the “masculinization” of women.
However, the government has been quietly building gyms into new schools. Princess Norah University, the all-women school which opened its doors for students last fall, has a large sports and recreation center. “It’s high time to look into the matter of introducing sports at girls schools seriously." Princess Adela bint Abdullah, the King’s daughter, told al-Riyadh in 2009. The Princess does not work in the government but she is married to the Minister of Education. A champion of women’s rights, she is said to play an influential role on education policy in the country.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia sent two female athletes to the Olympic Games London for the first time ever. The decision, announced only few weeks before the Olympics started, came after long negotiations between the government and the International Olympic Committee, and under high pressure from human rights groups who urged the IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from the Games if they don’t send women.
But experts and observers said that move was little more than a token.
“This is not a step forward for women’s rights,” activist Aziza al-Yousef told the New York Times last summer. “We’ve been asking for girls to play sports in school for years; here they give Saudi women a spot in the Olympics, but not the right to earn a place on the team. This doesn’t add anything, and it won’t change anything.”