On Friday, Saudi Arabia allowed female fans into an internal football game for the first time in its history. Around 300 women attended the Al-Ahli versus Al-Batin game at Pearl Stadium in the city of Jeddah. Glass panels were in place to segregate men from a women and family section. The event marks the beginning of many reforms aimed to give more rights to women in Saudi Arabia, which gained momentum last year under the new leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The women that attended the game were delighted to experience the sport and witness their team in action, rather than from their television screens at home. Wearing her Al-Ahli scarf over her black abaya, Areej al-Ghamdi stated “we love the club very much, and our home would often become an arena for supporters…This is the first time we’ll be cheering for real, not just in front of the television…It is so much better here.” Another attendee, Noura Bakharji, admitted she felt bitter towards her brothers after they had attended games without her, stating “I always watched games on TV while my brothers went to the stadiums… I asked myself repeatedly ‘Why I can’t go?’ Today, things have changed. It’s a day of happiness and joy.” Washington’s Saudi embassy spokesperson, Fatimah Baeshen, tweeted her support by saying, “As we speak; Saudi women fans are entering soccer stadiums! This is more than women’s rights: today’s match between Al-Ahli and Al-Batin, and the ones to follow, are opportunities for families to come together and enjoy KSA’s national sport — soccer! I’m rooting for the ladies — enjoy!” Father of three daughters, Saleh al-Ziadi, reveals how progressive this moment really is for Saudi women when he expressed his “daughters still don’t believe this is happening. They have not yet realized they will be cheering their favorite team inside the stadium.”
From an external standpoint this event may read as trivial or minor, but what we may perceive as a small step is an incredibly positive progression towards gender equality within the historically conservative state. Other entertainments and sports are a unique platform that enables different groups to come together in a peaceful context and bond over shared interests. These moments can begin the process of realization in individuals that we are not all that different from those we consider as the ‘other’.
In 2015, a woman attempted to enter a game but was arrested during the game despite her disguise in pants, a hat and sunglasses failed. Now in 2018, the progress with women’s rights is being regarded as proof that the Crown Prince, who was appointed leader last year, is the progressive influence the nation needed. The prince is 32 years old, and with more than half of the population now under 25 years old, young Saudis reportedly believe his leadership shows that their generation is shifting the patriarchal traditions that have ruled their nation for decades. This progress is evident in the Prince’s new reform policy that will lift the ban on women driving by June this year. This week became more significant as the first female-only car showroom was opened to the public in preparation for the changes in the law.
Women and men still entered the stadium in designated gates and were only allowed to sit together if they were considered a family unit. There is clearly a need for more progress within women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, but under the leadership of Salman, the future of female citizens will, hopefully, continue to become more positive. A female attendee, Muneera al-Ghamdi, best summarized this sentiment as she stated, “honestly, this decision should have happened a long time ago. But thank God that it came at the right time, and hopefully what’s to come will be even more beautiful for women.”
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