About a month after Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive, the kingdom has announced another historic move: Starting next year, women will be allowed to attend sporting events in stadiums for the first time.
Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority made the announcement on Sunday, tweeting that preparations will begin to “accommodate families” in three stadiums in the major cities of Riyadh, Jiddah and Dammam. Two of the stadiums, the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh and the King Abdullah Sports City in Jiddah, hold the highest seating capacity in the kingdom.
“Sports stadiums in Saudi Arabia to open their doors to welcome women in 2018,” Princess Reema Bandar bint Al-Saud, the Vice President for Women’s Affairs of the General Sports Authority, wrote on Twitter.
“The decision warms the hearts of the nation’s women,” she added. “Congratulations to us.”
It is unclear exactly how the stadiums will regulate where women and children will sit in relation to men, and whether the decision will apply to single women in addition to women with families. In many public places where women are allowed — such as public buses, parks, beaches and amusement parks — they are segregated.
The landmark decision follows last month’s historic decree that women would finally be granted Saudi driver’s licenses for the first time in June 2018.
The move ends one of the country’s most widely criticized and visible restrictions on human rights. It also comes amid a number of reforms put forth by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, and outlined in his “vision for 2030″ plan. He has said that the government aims to boost female participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.
Women continue to be treated as second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. They require permission from male guardians — such as a father, husband or brother — to travel, obtain passports, sign contracts and get married or divorced. They must follow strict dress codes under conservative Islamic law.
In a speech last week, the crown prince said he hopes to turn his country toward a more moderate version of Islam. He described plans to build a futuristic city run solely on alternative energy. A promotional video for his proposed development shows women running in sports bras, working alongside men in co-ed offices without the hijab covering women’s heads.
“We were not like this in the past,” he said, The Washington Post reported. “We want to go back to what we were: moderate Islam.”
Last month, hundreds of women were permitted to enter the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh to participate in the kingdom’s National Day celebrations for the first time. Though they had to sit in a specific section for families, they were able to enjoy fireworks, light shows and a concert in honor of the 87th anniversary of the kingdom’s foundation, Reuters reported.
The decision to open the stadium’s doors to women prompted a backlash from Saudi conservatives on social media. One user tweeted “Patriotism does not mean sin,” the BBC reported. A hashtag began circulating that translated to “people demand the return of the Haia,” or the religious police, which last year lost its power to arrest citizens.
Likewise, while many Saudi men and women praised Sunday’s move, the announcement spurred a fair amount of criticism on social media.
A hashtag circulated that translated to “Would you agree to marry a girl who enters stadiums?”
The criticism has not stopped leaders like the princess from championing rights for women in sports and recreation. This month, she became the first woman to be appointed president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports, which manages sports-related activities for both men and women.
Princess Reema Bandar bint Al-Saud, who was raised in the U.S. when her father was the ambassador and graduated from George Washington University, has pushed to license womens-only gyms and sports clubs, and many expect that her efforts will draw more women into athletic facilities, Reuters reported.
Women are not allowed to exercise with men, and many Muslim clerics consider it immodest for women to participate in sports. The kingdom did not send any women to the Olympics until 2012. In July, Saudi Arabia’s Education Ministry announced that for the first time, it would begin offering physical education classes for girls in public schools.
But some experts have expressed skepticism that reforms such as allowing women to drive will lead to further, significant change.
“The real question is whether this is a short-lived empty PR stunt or the beginning of fundamental reform in the kingdom,” Madawi al-Rasheed, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, wrote in a column posted on the Middle East Eye website, as The Post pointed out last month.
Others warned that changing societal norms in an ultraconservative country won’t be easy.