Saudi kingdom open to physical education for girls in public schools

The Education Ministry recently made the announcement. Physical education will respect the Sharia. For conservatives, it is immodest and goes against women’s “nature”. For now, there are no facilities and instructors. To overcome the reticence of opponents, Saudi authorities justify physical education on health grounds.

Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Saudi Education Ministry said on Tuesday that physical education for girls would start with the coming academic year.

The announcement did not detail what activities would be offered but said they would be introduced gradually and “in accordance with the rules of sharia” or Islamic law.

Sports in girls' schools is a controversial topic in Saudi Arabia as it is considered “immodest” by conservatives.

The Shura Council approved the introduction of physical education for girls in 2014, but the decision was never implemented as it faced opposition from clerics who decried it as “Westernisation”.

Opponents cite a number of reasons for this. Some believed that sports go against women’s “nature” or cause them to develop muscles that make them look like men.

One challenge to physical education is the lack of facilities and teachers since Saudi universities do not train female instructors.

The government has appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar to lead a women’s section of the national General Sports Authority.

The kingdom sent two female athletes to the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and four to the 2016 games.

Authorities have increasingly framed the issue of women’s sport in health terms to overcome conservative objections. Saudi Arabia has high rates of obesity.

According to the kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan, introduced last year, only 13 per cent of the Saudi population exercises at least once a week. The plan aims to boost that number to 40 per cent.

The Wahhabi kingdom limits women's freedom because of its strict interpretation of Islam. Women in Saudi Arabia must cover their hair and bodies in public, and are barred from driving and from travelling abroad and undergoing some medical treatments without the permission of a male guardian — usually a father, husband or even a son.

Still, some improvements and changes are on the horizon. Last month, former minister Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah opened the door to women driving. At present, if a woman is caught driving she can get up to ten lashes.