JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA— One of the richest countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is, in many ways, as advanced as any place on Earth in terms of infrastructure and modern conveniences.
But activists say the kingdom has a long way to go in terms of women’s rights.
In Jeddah, they say that by encouraging women and girls to play basketball and other sports, they chip away at the image of Saudi women as virtually silent members of their society.
“We played in the United States, Malaysia, in Jordan and the U.A.E., as well as Riyadh and other cities in Saudi Arabia," said Lina K. Almaeena of the Jeddah United Sports Company. "So, we do that to promote sports locally and internationally to try to change stereotypes and show a different segment in Saudi Arabia.”
At a sports event for handicapped children — both boys and girls — female basketball players said defying stereotypes in Saudi Arabia requires pushing boundaries, without breaking them.
Opposed by some
Women’s basketball in Saudi Arabia is played without male fans. Even though the players are covered, many people still feel it is improper.
“It is not even against the law or against the religion," said Nour Gary, a baskeball player with Jeddah United. "It is just people having their own beliefs and trying to close [force] it on other people. So, yes, being open towards sports, they have more flexibility towards other things.”
Players say women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have come far in recent years, but many basic freedoms, like the right to drive cars, are still elusive.
Last year, women in Saudi Arabia voted for the first time, some were voted into office. Like politicians, female athletes say they believe women’s’ sports will eventually be accepted more publicly.
“We have great athletes here in Saudi Arabia, some of them," said Deborah Parkwood, the women's basketball coach for Jeddah United. "The girls, they want to play harder, they want to train harder and they would love to compete for their country internationally.”
In the meantime, players say promoting the health benefits of women’s sports locally is having an immediate impact on society by showing mothers the benefits of exercise for themselves and for their children.