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No sporting chance for Saudi women

One government-appointed mullah believes sports may cause young women to lose their virginity.

Saudi Arabia's Jeddah United warm up before their friendly basketball game against Jordan's Al Reyadeh in Amman April 21, 2009. Due to the strict version of Islam the Saudi kingdom follows, women cannot drive or vote and have few legal rights. Despite this, women have quietly formed soccer, basketball, volleyball and other teams throughout the kingdom in the past few years, though they face an uncertain future. (Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Joseph Heller would have smiled. It’s another absurd predicament.
Government officials have begun notifying female-only sports clubs that they must shut down because they don’t have licenses, according to Saudi press reports.

And they don’t have licenses because ... ?

That’s right! No government department is authorized to issue licenses for female-only sports clubs.

The catch-22 situation is another illustration of the barriers placed in the way of Saudi women who want to exercise and participate in sports. Their opportunities to do so are extremely limited because the prevailing view among the country’s influential religious leadership is that it is “un-Islamic” for females to be involved in athletic activities.

This bias against exercising women remains despite the medical community’s warnings about rapidly rising rates of obesity and diabetes among Saudi youth.

"The idea of female fitness is non-existent within our government," Fouziah Alouni, a prominent women's rights campaigner, told Reuters. "Depriving women of this is yet another way of marginalizing them.”

The deprivation starts early. Government schools for girls do not offer physical education classes as part of the curriculum. There are no official sports teams at state-run women’s universities. Females do not ride bicycles in public, swim in pools outside their homes or participate in sports tournaments.

They also are not allowed in public stadiums when Saudi’s beloved soccer teams play.

Last year, when King Saud University in Riyadh announced that it would sponsor an all-female walking marathon on campus to promote health awareness, the country’s most senior religious official, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Alsheikh, ordered the university president to cancel the event.

Also, Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world that has never had women in its official Olympic teams. Last year, the kingdom was permitted to send five all-male teams to Beijing although the Olympic charter states that “any form of discrimination” is “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

Clerical opposition to women doing sports does not stem from Islam. Rather, it arises out of cultural attitudes long discredited in most other societies. Some clerics have Victorian-era ideas that such activities are “unfeminine.” Others display ignorance about the necessity of exercise to maintain health. And some have suggested that exerting themselves in sports would be detrimental to women’s honor.