- By Barbara Surk
- Associated Press
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Behind concrete walls and out of sight of men, Saudi women wearing shorts and short-sleeve shirts meet three times a week to play soccer in an all-female club in Saudi Arabia’s port city of Jeddah.
Cheering them on is Jeddah King’s United coach and striker Reema Abdullah, who also is leading a campaign in the ultra-conservative Muslim country to allow women to participate in sports and compete internationally.
Saudi Arabia has never sent a woman to compete in the Olympics. Human rights groups say the country is violating the International Olympic Committee charter’s pledge of equality.
In a report Wednesday, Human Rights Watch called on the IOC to require that Saudi Arabia’s participation in the London Olympics be contingent upon the Arab country allowing all girls and women to play competitive sports.
Saudi Arabia’s male athletes have qualified in several track and field and equestrian events for the London Games.
There’s a chance male athletes also will qualify in archery, and they are hoping for a wild card invitation in shooting. But if there are plans to send women to the Olympics, they remain a secret.
“We will watch the London Olympics and we will cheer for our men competing there, hoping that someday we can root for our women, as well,” said the 33-year-old Abdullah in a telephone interview from Jeddah.
“Nobody is saying completely ‘no’ to us. As long as there are no men around and our clothes are properly Islamic, there should be no problem,” she said.What they are doing is illegal, even though there are no written laws in Saudi Arabia that ban women from participating in sports. The stigma of female athletes is rooted in conservative traditions and religious views that hold giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sins.
Since Abdullah put together Saudi Arabia’s first female soccer club in Jeddah in 2006, teams have popped up around the country.
The team plays not in a stadium but on what Abdullah describes as “a proper-size football field with grass that is surrounded by a wall.”
The roster includes 35 women from 13-35. The players wear long trousers, long-sleeved shirts and specially designed head scarves to cover their hair, Abdullah said.