Legal, cultural, and social restrictions are no longer a stumbling block for Saudi women to practice sport, following a recent spate of liberalisations across the country.
As part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, women can now exercise and take part in various sports while maintaining their privacy, expanding their dreams from school sports arenas to national-level tournaments.
The move was met with a surge in demand from various segments of society, especially women who saw this as a historic opportunity to highlight their talents and their ability to be active in the community.
It also serves in removing the remaining barriers to sport across Saudi society, and is projected to end the discrimination that had bound them for decades.
Access to sports for Saudi Arabia’s women began in the early 1960s, when sport classes were introduced at private schools in the port city of Jeddah. In 2003, female teams were established in various sports, such as football, basketball, and volleyball. Meanwhile in 2006, the first women’s sports academy was established in the country. However, sports for women in Saudi Arabia have long remained a taboo.
In 2017, however, a sea-change gradually started to happen as part of the country’s Vision 2030, which seeks to do away with the restrictions Saudi women face and which deprive them of their most basic rights. The change has increased their optimism, and let them join different sporting events that are organised from time-to-time.
In October 2019, the first women’s football league in Saudi Arabia was launched in Jeddah over ten weeks. With 30 matches between six teams competing according to a points system, each team has 16 female players, eight on the field and eight on the bench.
Women’s access to sports in Saudi Arabia is set to expand even more in 2021, with the first female basketball tournament expected to take place at the end of February. The tournament is the first of its kind, and will feature four teams in the Eastern region, including the first team from Eastern Hemam Academy, who will face teams from Jeddah and Riyadh.
Women sports have recently found support in the Eastern region, including Dammam, Khobar, and Jubail, the third most significant city in Saudi Arabia after Riyadh and Jeddah. There, women have already found support for their participation in sport, and several significant sporting events aimed at women have been held.
In Khobar, the Eastern Hemam Academy was launched in 2019 to introduce different sporting activities and allow the city’s women to practice sports. The Academy’s first team, featuring 12 junior players, is set to join the upcoming basketball tournament.
Daily News Egypt visited the Academy and interviewed its head Taghred Al-Aateby, as well as basketball players and coaches, all of whom spoke about their basketball experiences in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Aateby, herself a basketball player, noted that the Academy was set up in 2019 with a small, all stars team of seven young women playing basketball. There are now three basketball teams, two for children, one for juniors, and a football team.
She also added that the Academy has now added new sports, including table tennis and football, both for women. Basketball for women in the Eastern region, however, is still a new concept.
“We invite teams from neighbouring cities like Dammam and Jubail to play with our team, and create a pickup game to exchange expertise and qualifications,” Al-Aateby said, “Since we started, we have only played exhibition games, we did not [take part in] any leagues or tournament as there were no sponsors, but now we have basketball tournament which we are preparing for.”
Al-Aateby said that the Academy has its rules and that they do not follow international regulations. However, they follow International Basketball Federation (FIBA) regulations, and simplify them to suit the level of those enrolled in the Academy, since most of them are new players.
She said that the Sports For All Federation (SFA), which was recently established, has lent its support to the Academy, which registered at the federation and started to create basketball, ballet, and karate teams for children, juniors, and teams for female university students.
“This is not our first time joining significant events, as we played a table tennis tournament for Saudi women at the end of 2020,” Al-Aateby said.
In the period prior to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the SFA Foundation had been managing Saudi Arabia’s Olympics teams, but this was stopped due to the restrictions brought in against the pandemic.
With international sports tournaments no longer on the cards, the foundation instead launched domestic leagues where teams from cities including Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam could take part. They also organised several workshops on how to be a referee, founding female athletes, and others.
The SFA, which is one of the sports federations affiliated with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports, aims to drive the ministry’s goals forward, following the country’s Vision 2030. In doing so, it expects to encourage greater participation in various physical and sport activities.
How it started
Al-Aateby said that the Academy got off the ground following the launch of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.
“We received great support to start up as the first place for Saudi women to practice sport in the Eastern region,” she said, “Our Academy is the first for females in Khobar and Dammam.”
She also said that she used to teach sports at international schools, where girls proved their talent in sports. However, she also notes her concerns for the future, what these young sports women will do in the future, how their skills can be developed further.
Whilst working as a teacher, all schools in Khobar used to create leagues for girls and provide awards, but this only occurred at the school level, Al-Aateby said.
“From this point, I got the idea to establish a sports academy for women, a club to provide all sports games, different activities, leagues, and tournaments as well that they could take part in,” she said.
As a result, the Academy offers sports to all, even ensuring that activities are added once they are asked for. To encourage greater participation, leagues are created, which helps keep motivation up.
This can be most relevantly seen in the introduction of table tennis, which was initially not well received among young females. To change this, a multi-city league was created with prizes handed out to the most successful, which in turn encouraged more girls to join.
After the Academy won several leagues and prizes, the number of youngsters joining as a whole started to increase.
“When we started at the beginning, the number of girls was not high, as we had, for example, 20 members for basketball in the Academy, but now we have 50 and could reach as high as 70,” Al-Aateby said, “I expect 2021 will be a total game-changer for women looking to play sports in Saudi Arabia.”
There are now over 90 girls enrolled with the Academy, which currently features two ballet teams for juniors and children, and two teams for Karate. With the latter two sports, there are no leagues, as yet, due to the Academy choosing to focus on creating a foundation among those participating first.
Despite the great potential for change, she noted that there remains the problem of finding places for training, which are still very limited in number. The Academy has sent many letters to the relevant entities to help find more places for practicing. Some headway has been made, particularly with regards to the upcoming basketball tournament, with sponsors offering the academy a place to train.
Speaking of her experience, Al-Aateby noted that she used to play football with her brother on the roof of her house when she was a child, who used to train her at that time as no place offered to train girls in Saudi Arabia.
“My brother used to organise the football leagues in our district, and I worked as his assistant,” she said, “When he practiced, I joined him and learned from him, as he used to teach me various skills such as being a goalkeeper, right-back, or defender.”
This proceeded, in 2017, to her joining courses on basketball and mini basket, as well as other courses organised by the World Health Organization (WHO) on dealing with stadium accidents and other health and safety issues.
Routine work to big challenge
Egyptian basketball coach Nada Zein told her story of joining the Academy in December 2020, where she started training the girls just for fun and without a specific goal. After two months, however, a plan for winning tournaments was formulated and put into place.
Zein is registered as a basketball player with SPA Federation and as an international player with FIBA. She started on her basketball path at the age of seven with Cairo’s Al-Ahly Sporting Club in Cairo, a path she pursued for 17 years.
As part of this, she took part in several Al-Ahly matches inside and outside Egypt, receiving many prizes along the way, before later joining the Heliopolis Sporting Club. After she sustained an injury to her leg, she stopped playing basketball and started coaching.
“The tournament in February is the first tournament for girls in the kingdom, and I am lucky to have my first experience as a full coach in the first Saudi basketball tournament,” Zein said, “It’s my first time to have the responsibility of a whole team, and I am doing two roles, acting as both a coach and a player as well.”
She added that at the beginning, playing basketball was seen as more fun than as something that could lead to a serious sporting path. But when the tournament started gaining momentum, the mentality in the team also changed, and there was more talk among the players of how big the tournament would be. Emphasis was placed on the players making history, especially as this is their first tournament in Saudi Arabia and they are the first girls to join it.
“At the beginning, they were still not aware of the idea and not responding until I started to create exhibition games with other teams,” Zein said, “This idea made them understand the idea of matches and competition and have a competitive spirit.”
She also notes the progress and changes seen among the players in the past two months, as they have become more committed, and are working harder towards having a goal. Zein also noted that their spirit has changed, and are now nurturing their goal that they would win and play in Riyadh.
Prior to their training with the academy, many girls were not aware of basketball rules or techniques, and many did not even have a basketball. However, after two months of comprehensive practice, the players can now finish a game on 40 or 50 points, which has already become a reality at a recent match.
Zein added that this a significant achievement for girls who had not previously known basketball’s basics. The majority also have only six to 12 months of basketball experience, with only one player having four years of experience on the court.
When dreams come true
For 29-year-old Saudi basketball player Sadeem Al-Tilian, a basketball tournament is the stuff of dreams which has finally come true.
“I started playing basketball by coincidence, but I found myself happy with this sport,” she said, “From the time that I started playing four years ago until today, I feel that I need to learn more and develop more in this sport. I don’t think that my passion will ever stop.”
She added, “When I knew that there would be a tournament, I was so happy, as it is a significant boost to us.”
The team really sat up and took notice only two months ago, but Al-Tilian said that there has been a large and noticeable difference in the team’s level of play since they started training hard.
She also notices a big difference in her level of confidence and responsibility, as well as her having a more competitive spirit as a result.
Despite the restrictions put in place due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the team is still exerting more effort, even taking their training home with them to prepare for the tournament.
Al-Tilian added that the team is aiming high and looking to take on the first place position, to play in Riyadh.