According to Arab News, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education has approved a program allowing physical education to be taught in girls’ schools. This is more significant than some observers realize. The deeply religious and conservative Middle Eastern nation does not not favor women’s rights or their independence. However, there is a movement for change. The kingdom wants to modernize and that means having women be a part of the larger society and public sphere. The implementation will occur during the 2017 and 2018 school year. Saudi women will no longer accept a second class status or remain under antiquated guardianship. An even bigger incentive is to mobilize women in the workforce and other sectors. This starts with the youth and creating new opportunities. Vision 2030 seeks to enhance the Saudi kingdom economically, politically, and socially. This change is policy is part of that program to ensure the country is not left behind in the 21st century. Sporting activities are being encouraged across the kingdom. This is part of the Vision 2030 program and women will gain the most from it. The focus on sports clearly has an intention on building high performing Olympic teams. It would not be surprising to see the girls who benefit from this program becoming Olympic athletes in the future. Like Title IX in the United States it will be beneficial both in terms of public health and women’s empowerment.
The minister of education Amed Al-Issa issued the decree for schools in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for girls’ physical education. A supervisory committee will be established under the supervision Haya Bint Abdul Aziz Al-Awwad, undersecretary of education for girls. This program will target both public schools and universities. Three months of intense policy study Saudi officials thought this was the correct time for educational reform. Change will not be immediate. It may be decades before the new policy shows positive results. Discrimination and gender bias cannot be erased by a mere stroke of a pen. There will of course be individuals who object to any form of change. Others are more open mined and fitness trainers seem more enthusiastic about the decree. It is not secret that some girls have been given private lessons in tennis and soccer before the royal decree. Now girls can have schools provide facilities to develop athletic skills. There are less liberal voices as demonstrated by Mohammud M.S :” I don’t think it’s right for a young girl to take a sports class in school, she will grow harsh and rough, which goes against her delicate nature.” He expounds further: “I won’t deny my daughter’s participation in any (physical education) related activities in school but I will draw a line somewhere.” It seems Saudi men who were raised in a religiously conservative society reject the idea of a strong woman. However, others realize that change cannot be stopped yet sill wrestle with the idea of traditional gender roles. This change should be welcome for the sake of the kingdom’s image.
Western images and ideas about Saudi Arabia either are stereotypical, racist, or Islamophobic. As a way to disparage an entire race, some point to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women. Commentators say “they are not part of the civilized world” or use it to elevate Western values as being superior. The truth is like any other country,Saudi Arabia has its problems, but it is seeing women become more powerful. Over the past decade it has happened rapidly. During the Rio 2016 Olympics Saudi Arabia sent four women athletes to compete. Although it was only four athletes the image was important. Prior to that Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani made history as the first women to compete in the modern Olympic games in 2012.
These young women were met with harsh criticism at home by religious fundamentalists and extreme traditionalists. These negative reactions inside the kingdom only validate Western prejudices and misconceptions. If one truly loves their nation they should seek to see all members be successful, especially in an international setting. Doing so will dispel the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment so prevalent in mainstream Western media. Many objects to women’s participation in sport come from a religious context. The Quran does not ban or prohibit women from participating in sports. To make the claim it makes women into bad Muslims has not factual support. Religion should not be regressive, but progressive. Islam has a tradition of impressive civilizations which include the Abbasid Caliphate, Umayyad Caliphate, Songhai Empire, Mali Empire, Sokoto Caliphate, and the Ottoman Empire. That tradition must be revitalized in elevation of people and society. Women are the key to saving the kingdom from turmoil. Sports are not the only sector women are flexing their muscles; they are making their mark on government.
Princess Reema was appointed in 2016 to oversee the women’s sports sector. She works in the General Authority for Sports and it is pivotal that women have leadership positions. Normally, a Western view of a Saudi woman is that of a weak and oppressed creature sheltered from the outside world. Contrary to misconceptions women are challenging old customs. Around 2014 schools Saudi state schools introduced sports for girls after vocal opposition to a general ban on women in sports. The move was incomplete without physical education for all girls. Gradually, the kingdom is introducing reform. Yet, they do not go far enough. The fear of the House of Saud is that reform in other areas may mean mass political reform or possible revolution. The Arab Spring has increased this paranoia. The trepidation of regime change may halt reforms, which could prevent such events from occurring. The addition of physical education to girls’ education is a great step in promoting social health and stability to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The encouragement of a healthy lifestyle will prevent disease and reduce healthcare costs in the long term. Seeing as people will live longer in the future, this must be encouraged.