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Saudi Arabia moves to allow girls to play sports in school

Advising body recommends girls be allowed to play sports in school if they conform to Sharia rules

Saudi Arabian authorities have been asked to consider lifting a nationwide ban on sports for girls in schools, according to the official SPA news agency, in a religiously conservative country that included women in its Olympic team for the first time only two years ago.

Under a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, Saudi women are banned from driving and must gain formal permission from a male relative to leave the country, start a job or open a bank account. But King Abdullah is pushing cautious social reforms on women's rights in the face of conservative resistance.

SPA said Saudi Arabia's appointed Shura Council, which advises the government on policy, had asked the Education Ministry to look into including sports for girls in state-run schools with the proviso that they should conform to Sharia rules on dress and gender segregation.

Although it would not become law until the ministry and cabinet approved the idea, the council's vote represented a further small step of progress for Saudi women.

The world's top oil exporter has maintained an official ban on sports classes for girls in state schools under pressure from religious conservatives.

A ban on sports in private girls' schools was officially lifted last year, though some of those schools had already been providing physical education classes for girls for years.

In 2012, when Saudi Arabia included women on its Olympic team for the first time, the move won support from many of its citizens but also prompted some to abuse the morals of the two female athletes, a runner and judoka, on social media.

Although the council's decisions are not binding, they are seen as important in Saudi Arabia because it is the only official forum in which new laws and government policy on sensitive social issues are publicly discussed.

A year ago King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the 150-member chamber for the first time.

His moves to make it easier for women to work and study alongside men, and to promote more tolerant views of other religions, have faced opposition from powerful clerics and their many supporters, who fear the kingdom is losing what they see as its Islamic values in favor of Western ideas.

SPA quoted the deputy chairman of the Shura Council, Fahad al-Hamad, as saying the council had heard supporting and dissenting views on the topic during the session before it adopted the decision.

Members who supported the decision pointed to an increase in obesity-related illnesses in Saudi society, particularly among women, and an increase in jobs if physical education programs were adopted for girls.

Those who opposed the decision said there were many schools that did not have the infrastructure for sports. Some members also questioned whether physical education lessons had decreased obesity in boys.

"The [education affairs] committee saw .... that ratifying this decision does not contradict Sharia law, pointing out that a previous fatwa [religious ruling] ... allowed for sports for women in general," SPA reported on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia is ruled by Sharia, and Abdullah has taken some steps to restrict the ability of clerics to pass fatwas.

The Al Saud ruling family has always retained a close alliance with clerics of the strict Wahhabi school of Islam, which controls the judiciary and parts of the education system.

Wahhabis endorse a political philosophy that demands obedience to the ruler and have issued fatwas banning anti-government protests, but they themselves have opposed many of the king's social reforms.


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