President of the Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) denied media reports suggesting that the federation will allow women to attend matches in stadiums, saying this decision was not his to make.
“A decision like this is a sovereign decision. Neither me nor SAFF can make it,” Ahmed Eid told al-Riyadh newspaper. “Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision.”
Eid added that there are studies being conducted to explore the possibility of building boxes at some stadiums that can be rented by businesses and families so women can attend football games. Eid said these boxes could be built in the new King Abdullah Sports City stadium when it opens in 2014, and also at Prince Abdullah al-Faisal stadium that is being renovated, both in the coastal city of Jeddah on the Red Sea.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that applies a strict interpretation of Islam with many restrictions on women. But the country sent two women to the Olympic Games for the first time last year in London after pressure from human rights organizations. Wojdan Shahrkhani competed in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field. Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, praised Saudi Arabia’s late decision to send women to the games. “This is a major boost for gender equality,” he said.
The Saudi government recently announced that it will allow physical education at private girls’ schools under supervision from the Ministry of Education. Some private schools for girls already offer sports classes, but the decision is expected to regulate an existing practice and open the door to other schools to do the same.
Human Rights Watch urged the government to remove hurdles on women sports. “Sports for Saudi girls in schools will have a lasting impact on their empowerment, education and professional opportunities,” said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives for HRW, in a statement. “Doing away with the ban on sports will allow a generation of girls to compete and to work within the kingdom to pull down hurdles.”
Football is the most popular sport in the country, and SAFF is understandably cautious about the issue of allowing women into stadium. Ahmed Eid is the first elected president of SAFF and also the first non-royal to take this office. A former goalkeeper for Jeddah-based al-Ahli club, Eid is considered a reformer and a supporter of women sports.
Writing in Arab News earlier this year, columnist Sabria S. Jawhar said Eid as “probably the single most important male ally that Saudi female athletes have to get a women’s football team up and running.”
Photo courtesy of Waleed Alzuhair via Flickr