Underground basketball: Saudi women shed veils

Sports are one of the many banned activities for women in Saudi Arabia.

.JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – The players bounded into the gym, shedding their long black cloaks and veils to take to the basketball court. Up this night: Jeddah United against the Jaguars, as 30 women spectators hooted and hollered from the stands.

Such is the start of women’s sports in Saudi Arabia – a Muslim country so conservative that the fledgling women’s sports teams that have begun to appear in recent years remain almost entirely underground, far from public scrutiny or religious clerics’ eyes.

“One day we’re going to look back on such events and hopefully say, ‘Wow, we’ve gone a long way,'” said Lina al-Maeena, the founder and team captain of Jeddah United.

“Future generations won’t have to start from zero.”

In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive or vote and have few legal rights. The restrictions stem from the strict version of Islam the kingdom follows. Many conservative adherents believe that women’s emancipation will lead to decadence and a dissipation of Islamic values.

For these religious conservatives, keeping the sexes segregated and maintaining male guardianship over women is not enough. They want to ban anything they believe might encourage women to abandon conservative Muslim values.

Because of the influence conservative clerics have on government and society, sports and physical education classes are banned in state-run girls’ schools. Women’s games and marathons are canceled when the powerful clergy get wind of them, and female athletes are not allowed to participate in the Olympics.

Despite such obstacles, Saudi women have quietly been forming soccer, basketball, volleyball and other teams throughout the kingdom in the past few years. Some operate under schools and universities, others are under the umbrella of charities. A few, like Jeddah United and the Jaguars, are independent.

The teams have none of the privileges that men’s leagues – which have existed for decades – enjoy.

They’re not part of the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, the federation that oversees sports. They find it hard to get corporate sponsorship. They don’t have proper facilities where they can train, or even certified referees. And they are not allowed to participate in international competitions.

And while men’s games are broadcast on TV and take place in huge stadiums, women rarely advertise their games – or even talk openly about them – for fear the clergy will stop them. That makes it difficult for them to reach spectators from outside their immediate circle of friends and family. And teams in one city often do not know that teams in another exist.

In March, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, the kingdom’s mufti, or senior cleric, told Okaz newspaper he had ordered a university in the capital, Riyadh, to cancel a women’s marathon. Last year, clerics barred a women’s soccer game in the Eastern Province.

Abdul-Kareem al-Khodair, a professor at Imam University, wrote on al-Muslim Web site that introducing physical education classes for girls at government schools would be tantamount to “following in the devil’s footsteps” – an argument conservative clerics make to highlight the corrupting influence of women’s sports.

That attitude is one reason why the rate of obesity among Saudi women is higher than among men, health care officials say. About 52 percent of Saudi men and 66 percent of women are either obese or overweight, according to Saudi press reports.

The women playing basketball on a recent night last week were conscious of the controversies.

Al-Maeena, 29, stressed that her efforts to promote sports are aimed at combating such “social ills” as obesity, osteoporosis and depression, and providing healthy alternatives for women, who spend their time shopping and smoking waterpipes. She and the others emphasized they do not seek broader liberties, such as an end to segregation of the sexes or the wearing of veils and abayas, the black cloaks all women must wear in public.