Apr. 22--AMMAN -- Jeddah United (JU), the first Saudi women's club basketball team, is in Amman this week on an invitation from Riyadi Club's women's team.
Saudi Arabia and Brunei are the two countries barring women from their Olympic delegations, and women's sports is banned in Saudi public schools and there are no federations that organise women's sport.
Despite this, Lina Al Maeena and her husband set up the Jeddah United Sports Company (JUSC) in 2006, with one of the main aims being the promotion of female sport in the Kingdom, with the eventual hope of producing Olympic-standard athletes.
In an interview with The Jordan Times, JU co-founder Maeena, who is also captain of the team, said she was driven by personal passion having been lucky to have attended a private school where women can play sport. "I believe in it. Sportsmanship teaches values, and being involved in sports was a great investment for me as a teenager and I'm still at it."
The team, which arrived in Amman on Tuesday, kicked off their four-day visit with an informal meeting with Jordan Basketball Federation women's basketball committee chairperson, Taroub Khoury, and national team coach Sirsa Naghaway.
Khoury, who spearheaded the return of former national team players to the arena, and formed a team that has competed in the league, hailed JU's initiative and promotion of sports.
Riyadi Secretary General Fadi Sabbah said JU's mini training camp will include matches against Riyadi and Shabab Urdun as well as visits to religious and historic sites such as Jerash and Petra.
"It is the first time in Jordan for the first Saudi women's basketball team, the experience is beneficial for both sides," Sabbah told The Jordan Times. As they seek more exposure and experience, JU travelled to the UAE in 2007 where they played the American University of Sharjah.
While Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country officially barring women's sports, the government's stance on the issue is not as clear cut as it might seem and observers note only some segments in society oppose it. In a recent interview, The Washington Post quoted Maeena as saying: "The idea of Saudi women playing sports is socially unacceptable to some people. That's the barrier we're trying to break."
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah reshuffled his Cabinet and chose the first-ever woman deputy minister for women's education -- the most senior ever granted to a woman in the Kingdom. The women of Jeddah United exemplify how reform is slowly coming; led by a generation who want the country to modernise in a way consistent with the teachings of Islam.
"We are not asking for something against our culture or our religion," Maeena said, adding that in Muslim countries all over the world, women play sport. "The Muslim religion teaches you to be fit. Caliph Omar Bin Al Khattab, preached that you have to teach your children swimming, archery [and] equestrian," she said, adding that those who oppose it preach a distorted interpretation of religion.
At the Olympics, Iran, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Indonesia and Somalia were among Muslim nations that fielded women in their delegations and observers hope possibly London 2012 will see the first ever Saudi women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is now putting increasing pressure on countries banning women to include women in the future. JU and others have an ally in Moroccan Olympic gold medallist Nawal El Moutawakel who last year became the first Muslim woman elected to the IOC executive board. In 1984, Moutawakel became the first woman from a Muslim country to win a gold medal.
Calls to lift the ban on women's sports are coming from many high-profile officials including Saudi Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal Bin Fahd, vice president of youth welfare, the body that sponsors sports events in the country.
On Monday, Prince Nawaf was quoted by Saudi's Al Watan newspaper that starting next academic year, the organisation will permit girls' schools to provide physical education classes. That announcement has given JUSC a big boost.
The JU team, which has Saudis and expatriates on their line-up, has Aramex Jeddah as sponsor of their Amman tour. The club now has about 200 sportspeople -- male and female -- who play sport under its banner. Operations Manager Maali Al Abdali and Maeena note their tournaments have a social message behind them believing that learning through sports is an effective way to teach the youth the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle.
The highlight of the tournaments was Saudi Arabia's first ever women's street basketball tournament in which 12 teams participated. Since 2006, they also held a "Back to School Tournament", "Father and Son Tournament", "Drink Milk Tournament" the "Cancer Survivor Tournament" and the "Anti-Smoking Sports Day".
And in order to sustain teams, JUSC have age groups in football and basketball where parents attend and are part of the sporting spirit. Laila Mkayes, a Syrian national who played for Lattakia's Hittin Club and the national team, now resides in Jeddah and is coach of JU's U-14 and U-18 girls' teams.
"Everyone is so passionate and enjoys playing. I'm so happy for the kids and to be able to help out," Mkayes said.
In 2008, JU conducted two basketball clinics with the WNBA for coaches and players as part of the Sports United Friendship Basketball Programme. Forty-five players from various teams and 25 coaches of different organisations signed up for the quality training that was run by ex-WNBA players Lynette Woodard and Ruthie Bolton.
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