Saudi debates access to stadiums for women

Saudi Arabia is debating whether to allow access to women in sports stadiums after an official backed the idea, triggering a storm in the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom where female sports are severely restricted.

"Women would be authorised in the stadiums soon," said Saudi Football Federation chief Ahmed Eid.

Eid raised the possibility of allocating 15 percent of the capacity of a stadium being built in a sports complex in the western city of Jeddah to family booths where women could attend football matches.

The stadium is due to be completed in 2014.

His remarks have triggered a wide debate, mostly opposing the idea, in Saudi media forcing Eid to clarify that what he said was his "personal opinion".

Saudi Arabia applies a strict version of Islamic sharia law which prohibits the mixing of men and women in public and limits women's access to public places.

Women's sports is almost non-existent in the kingdom and the authorities only allow girls to practice sports in their private schools.

"This question is the responsibility of competent authorities. The decision to allow women in stadiums does not depend on any sporting federations," said Eid.

Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, who is in charge of sports in the country, has been evasive on the subject, simply stating he had nothing to add.

The debate comes as the conservative Muslim country saw for the first time one of its women in a sports arena when she attended a riding competition in Al-Ihsa of the Eastern Province with a "legal guardian".

Women in Saudi Arabia cannot travel abroad or appear in a public place where males and females mix without a guardian.

In another example, a group of Saudi women supporters made a trip to Kuwait to cheer their football club Al-Fath but their requests to follow their team when playing at home was in vain.

In January, Korean and Japanese expatriate women were allowed to attend an Asian handball tournament in Jeddah where they could cheer on their teams.

Saudi women journalists reported on the event.

Saudi Arabia is also trying to organise the finals of the Asian Football Cup 2019 and wherever the matches are held the hosts would have to provide space for women spectators under Asian Football Federation rules.

On Saturday, Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to reach the summit of Nepal's Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, while Saudi Arabia sent two female athletes to the 2012 London Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee agreed to allow the two Saudi women to take part with their heads and bodies covered in keeping with Islamic dress code.