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Saudis say it's OK for girls in private schools to play sports

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabian girls will be allowed to play sports in private schools for the first time, according to a decision announced on Saturday, the latest in a series of incremental changes aimed at slowly increasing women's rights in the ultraconservative kingdom.

Saudi Arabia's official press agency, SPA, reported that private girls' schools are now allowed to hold sports activities in accordance with the rules of Shariah, or Islamic law. Students must adhere to “decent dress” codes and Saudi women teachers will be given priority in supervising the activities, according to the Education Ministry's requirements.

The decision makes sports once again a stage for the push to improve women's rights, nearly a year after two Saudi female athletes made an unprecedented appearance at the Olympics.

“It's about time,” said Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University. “Everything is being held back in Saudi Arabia as far as women's rights.”

Youssef said she sees the decision to allow sports for girls in private schools as part of package of wider reforms targeting women, but that continued restrictions on sports is a discrimination that negatively impacts women's health.

Education Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Dakhini was quoted in SPA saying that the decision to allow girls to play sports in private schools “stems from the teachings of our religion, which allow women such activities in accordance with Shariah.”

The government has quietly tolerated physical education in some private schools, but there was no set curriculum.

The decision, which orders private girls' schools to provide appropriate places and equipment for sports, is a monumental step that will likely soon affect public schools and universities, which are also gender segregated, Youssef said.

The Saudi government plays a role in private schools, providing textbooks and directors.

Deputy Minister of Education for Women's Affairs Nora al-Fayez was quoted as saying recently that there is a plan in place to expand sports education in public schools. It remains unclear whether girls would have access to the same level of physical education as boys.

Sports for women in Saudi Arabia have been largely a pastime of elites who can afford expensive health club memberships. They are often attached to hospitals since women's gyms were closed in 2010 on grounds they were unlicensed.

Saudi Arabia allowed two female athletes to compete in last summer's Olympics only after the International Olympics Committee had put intense pressure on the kingdom to end its practice of sending only male teams to the games. Their participation was not shown on Saudi TV stations.

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