JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Shaima Sabri, 12, dreams of the day when she plays soccer on a stadium field of green grass with her father and brothers in a crowd of thousands cheering her on to victory.
On the first day of Ramadan after Maghreb prayer, Shaima was running barefoot through a hardscrabble patch of dirt off Madinah Road in Jeddah. Playing with the neighborhood kids, she was kicking a frayed soccer ball. Her dreams at that moment of playing before thousands were as elusive as the sweeping green fields that she hopes to play on.
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“Some day I will play like Salem Aldawsari with Saudia,” said Shaima, referring to one of Saudi Arabia’s leading soccer players. “But sometimes I think this is as far as I will get.”
Yet Shaima, and girls and women like her, have an unlikely ally in helping them organize soccer leagues: the men’s Saudi Arabian Football Federation.
Ahmad Eid Al-Harbi, vice president of the Player Status Committee for
the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, which plays under FIFA, has been
quietly visiting university campuses to help women develop soccer teams.
Al-Harbi said meetings have included consultations on how to negotiate
with the international soccer unions from Germany, Brazil, the United
States and the United Kingdom in order to help women qualify for trainer
positions. The Federation has also developed a physical education
curriculum for women’s university campuses.
“Three weeks ago I visited CBA (College of Business Administration)
University in Jeddah and we had long conversations with officials there
with regard to women’s sports,” Al-Harbi told The Media Line.
“We formed a group of women who are willing to play basketball and
volleyball. We also convinced another group of women to form a soccer
team. Now, they are considering organizing a league among all women’s
universities in the region as a step towards participating in the
At least seven Arab countries presently have women’s soccer teams.
The meetings mark the first acknowledgment from a sanctioned Saudi
sports body that women could someday compete in the Olympics Games.
Competing in the Olympics is a tantalizing goal for women athletes who
believe that Saudi society might never recognize that women should have
equal footing with men in sports.
In the past two years, young Saudi women decided that they could no
longer wait for government permission and funding to start their own
soccer league. Instead, they organized their own teams and paid trainers
out of their own pockets to develop competitive teams. One such team is
the fledgling all-women’s Kings United Football Club in Jeddah.
Al-Harbi cautioned that although he wants to see women on the playing
field, the road to government-funded leagues still is fraught with many
“Saudi Arabia is a tribal society that doesn’t believe in speedy
change,” Al-Harbi said. “However, I believe there is a quite sizable
number of the society that is ready to accept women social sports that
contribute to women’s good health and her main role in the family as a
leader. When it comes to competitive sports, this needs quite longer
time to be accepted.”
Although Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal joins Al-Harbi in supporting the
right of women to play football, Al-Harbi characterized the atmosphere
in Saudi Arabia as “hostile” to competitive women’s sports. “I’m all for
[women’s football leagues] if we prepare the right atmosphere for such
participation. We need to build a very strong infrastructure and we need
human resources. Above all, we need to prepare the social atmosphere to
accept such competitions to make it friendlier than it is now,” he
Indeed, Rima Abdullah, the founder of Kings United, told the Dubai-based
Al-Arabyia TV last month that she has been criticized for organizing
her soccer team.
“As for society as a whole, when we first appeared in public, we were
attacked,” Abdullah said. “One of the most vehement attacks against me
was during a Friday sermon. The entire sermon was about Rima Abdullah,
as if I were pushing Saudi women towards promiscuity, or something.”
Kings United began playing in secret around Jeddah in 2005. The team
rented secluded soccer fields to keep away the curious. Players paid
their own expenses. Each player must have written permission from a male
guardian to participate. The team then initiated a publicity campaign
to drum up support. Last year, the team sought to participate in a
women’s tournament in Bahrain that included teams from Oman and Kuwait.
The Saudi team did not receive permission to play because FIFA and the
Saudi Arabian Football Federation do not formally recognize the team.
Al-Harbi advised patience. “One should first work on providing suitable
places such as playgrounds or stadiums that are specially equipped for
women in our segregated society,” he said. “Second, women’s organized
leagues should be operated under a very strong umbrella that protects
women and the ultimate goals of which leagues are formed. I suggest it
should be at least as a first step operated under Ministry of Education.
It should also follow the Islamic regulations so it doesn’t upset the
And there-in lies the obstacle. Religious conservatives have not only
railed against women’s sports leagues as unseemly and undignified
activities, but as a threat to players’ virginity.
As perhaps the leading voice in domestic matters, religious leaders hold
considerable sway over what is permissible and what is forbidden in
Earlier this year, clerics demanded the resignation of the dean at the
all-women’s Princess Noor University for Women in Riyadh for
implementing a physical education program.
A 2009 Al-Riyadh newspaper survey of 2,250 Saudis reported that only 4
percent opposed female physical education. But Saudi Grand Mufti Sheik
Abdul Aziz Al-Asheik told Al Eqtisadiah TV that, “Women should be
housewives. There is no need for them to engage in sports.”
Kings United has been careful not to rock the boat. Players wear the
hijab, sleeveless jerseys and shorts at mid-thigh in front of all-female
crowds, but long white clothes and the hijab that complies with Sharia,
or Islamic law, for male audiences.
Jeddah-based blogger Susie’s Big Adventure, who prefers to be identified
only as Susie and writes extensively on Saudi women’s health issues,
told The Media Line that physical education and participating in
organized sports can improve Saudi women’s health.
The Salman Medical Center at King Fahd Health City in Riyadh reported
last year that half of the Saudi women between the ages of 30 and 45
suffer from obesity.
“If Muslim men truly cared about the health of Muslim women, they would
encourage and support physical activities for women,” Susie said.
The good news is that government funding for women’s leagues may be more
than just wishful thinking with the backing of the Saudi Arabian
Football Federation. The bad news is that it might not be what women
Al-Harbi noted that women’s groups should receive government-funding
equal to men, but money should first be allocated for physical education
or “soft” sports, such as basketball and gymnastics, as a means to
integrate Saudi women into competitive international sports.
However, as for a FIFA-approved Saudi women’s team like the Iranian
Football Federation, Al-Harbi doesn’t see a quick solution. “Saudi
society is a very conservative one, even when it comes to men’s clubs.
No one can imagine his daughter playing in front of thousands of people
wearing shorts, such as in soccer.”
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