RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Appealing to a powerful Saudi prince, an 8-year-old girl asked why she was not allowed to play sports in school like boys. She got an unexpected response: The prince said he hoped government schools for girls would allow playing fields.
The stand taken by Prince Khaled al-Faisal, governor of the holy city of Mecca and one of the most senior second-generation members of the royal family, on the controversial issue is the strongest official endorsement so far of women's sports and a sign the government may be tilting toward opening up on that front.
Physical education classes are banned in state-run girls schools in conservative Saudi Arabia. Saudi female athletes are not allowed to participate in the Olympics. Women's games and marathons have been canceled when the powerful clergy get wind of them. And some clerics even argue that running and jumping can damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.
Like other restrictions on women in the kingdom, including the ban on driving and voting, the prohibitions on sports stem from the strict version of Islam the kingdom follows. Conservative clerics have strong influence on government and society, and they ban anything they believe might lead to women's emancipation or encourage women to abandon conservative Muslim values.
Despite the obstacles, there has been some progress in the past couple of years on this issue. Some Saudi women have quietly been forming soccer, basketball, volleyball and other teams throughout the kingdom.
Princess Adelah, King Abdullah's daughter, recently spoke publicly about the need to "seriously and realistically look into the issue of introducing sports in girls' schools because of the rise in diseases linked to obesity and lack of movement," according to Al-Riyadh newspaper. About 52 percent of Saudi men and 66 percent of women are either obese or overweight, according to Saudi press reports.
And on Sunday, the National Retirement Association, a voluntary group that works under the umbrella of the Jiddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, opened a half-mile (one-kilometer) walkway inside a Jiddah mall for female retirees to encourage them to lead active lives. Dressed in the long black cloaks women have to wear in public and clutching their handbags, a few women took part in a "marathon" soon after it opened.
Khaled's remarks, which he made at the launch of a project Monday aimed at developing cultural and sporting activities in the western city of Jiddah, gives a boost to these individual efforts. The prince is interested in sports and has served as head of the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, the federation that oversees it.
According to local newspapers, the 8-year-old girl told Khaled: "I ask myself why is it that only boys can play sports and have courts while we girls don't have anything?"
"I hope to see sports courts for girls inside girls' schools," the prince responded, according to Al-Hayat newspaper.
He said if this were to happen, it will be in coordination with the Education Ministry and "according to certain mechanisms that take into consideration women's privacy in this country."
His remarks came amid an intense debate over the issue in Saudi newspapers. The government allows such debates because the views expressed by the readers, columnists and clerics help it to gauge people's opinions over controversial issues.
A statement issued by three senior clerics last month lashed out at Saudis who demand the opening of more gyms for women, saying such a move would "open the doors wide for spreading decadence."
"It is well-known that only women with no shame will go to these clubs," said the statement signed by clerics Abdul-Rahman al-Barrack, Abdul-Aziz al-Rajihi and Abdullah bin Jibrin.
In a recent column in Al-Watan newspaper, Sheik Abdullah al-Mani, an adviser at the royal court, said virgins should think twice before engaging in sports.
"Soccer or basketball require running and jumping and these could damage (a woman's) the hymen," he wrote. "If she marries, her husband will ... think that her hymen was destroyed as a result of an (immoral) action."
"He will either divorce her or lose confidence in her chastity," he added.
His words triggered an angry response from Al-Watan columnist Haleema Muthafar.
"I'd like to ask the sheikh, "If in his opinion the hymen is the reason why girls should not engage in sports, what about married women? What's to stop them?" she wrote.