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Saudi Arabian girls get access to sports in private schools for first time

Private schools to provide coaching, equipment and appropriate areas for girls in Saudi Arabia to play.

Wojdan shaherkani judoEnlarge
Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani (white) competes with Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica (blue) during their women's +78kg judo contest match of the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 3, 2012 at the ExCel arena in London. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

Girls who attend private schools in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to compete in sports and physical activity, the education ministry announced today through that nation's media.

The private schools will provide equipment, coaching, appropriate areas to play and "put into effect a number of rules to regulate sports," Agence France-Presse reported.

Girls must still wear "a covering and decent outfit" while playing, the ministry said.

The kingdom is taking incremental steps toward gender equality in sport since the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

After flip-flopping on sending women to England, then facing sanctions from the International Olympic Committee, two Saudi women competed in judo and sprinting.

While modest, their presence at the Games is a far cry from a member of the country's highest council of clerics saying in 2009 that girls should not play sports lest they "lose their virginity" by tearing their hymens, Reuters reported.

State-run girls' schools do not have exercise classes.

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A newspaper owned by a Saudi prince said on Friday the Interior Ministry had decided to allow women's sports clubs after reviewing a study that showed flaws in its existing system, Reuters said.

"It's about time," professor Aziza Youssef told the Associated Press. "Everything is being held back in Saudi Arabia as far as women's rights."

Youssef said today's announcement may soon affect the larger public school system.

Until now, gyms for women were called health centers and only those who could afford the expensive memberships used them, the AP said.

However, the government closed those facilities in 2010 claiming they were unlicensed.

A Human Rights Watch report into women and sport in the Islamic kingdom last year said Saudi Arabian women are at greater health risks because they're forbidden to exercise.

“Sports can be a great cause for good, but forcing Saudi women to watch all-male teams represent them every four years can only demoralize those aspiring to sporting glory,” HRW's senior Middle East researcher Christoph Wilcke said last year.

More from GlobalPost: Saudi women heading to Olympics, but clerics still opposed

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/saudi-arabia/130505/saudi-arabia-girls-women-sports-private-schools