Debate in Saudi Arabia over Women's Sports

Recently, the Saudi public, government, and religious discourse has been engaged in a debate over women's sports, particularly women's gyms, physical education instruction in girls' schools, and competitive sports clubs for women.
The issue of women's sports clubs has reemerged on the public agenda following the International Olympic Committee's threat to suspend membership of any country that has not established sports frameworks for women by 2010. [1] Nevertheless, when discussion of this issue took place, in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, [2] some senior Saudi officials, including the deputy head of the Saudi Shura Council, opposed the idea, while others supported and even promoted the idea of women's sports. A well-known Saudi businessman, Prince Walid ibn Talal, even organized a reception honoring the country's first women's soccer team, Ittihad Al-Muluk. [3]
Another issue making headlines recently was the closure of women's gyms in several cities, on order of the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs - on the grounds that the centers were operating without proper medical supervision. [4] The Saudi English-language daily Arab News commented that the General Presidency for Youth Welfare and Sports (GPYWS), the only institution authorized to license gyms, had been granting licenses only to men's gyms while ignoring women's. [5] The Saudi daily Al-Madina reported that Saudi women had launched an Internet campaign protesting the closures, under the slogan "Let her be fat!" Members of the Parliamentary Social, Family, and Youth Affairs Committee demanded that the GPYWS implement the existing Shura Council order and open gyms for women. [6]
As to physical education in girls' schools, this has been a topic of public debate for a number of years now. GPYWS deputy head Nawaf bin Fahed announced at a Shura Council session that in the near future the GPYWS would allow this in girls' schools. [7]
An Al-Riyadh article, titled "Women's sports: The Minority of Opponents Has Prevailed over the Majority of Supporters," presented data from a public survey on women's sports, which was conducted by the SaudiCenter for Statistical Research. According to the survey, 89% of the population think that sports are important for women; 10% think that they are important to some degree; and only 1% hold that sports are not important for women at all. Furthermore, 48% supported gyms for women; 44% supported them provided that they were designed in accordance with the unique nature of Saudi society; and only 4% were categorically opposed to gyms for women. [8]
Clerics' opinions on this issue were diverse; some categorically opposed all sports activities for women, while others sanctioned them under certain conditions.
Following are excerpts from relevant articles in the Saudi press:
Saudi Mufti: Women's Sports Are Against the Will of Allah
Saudi Mufti Sheikh Abd Al-'Aziz bin Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh refused to sanction women's sports, stating that "[such] demand is tantamount to a call for wantonness, for transgressing [the rules of] modesty, and for disobeying [feminine] nature, which Allah instilled in the woman upon creation." He further stated: "A woman is expected to be a homemaker and a caregiver for her children; it is she who builds the family and shares [responsibility] for its management. If she leaves [her home] for the sake of such things [i.e. sports], she will forget herself… she will neglect her husband and children, and waste her time on games and amusement, unaware of what is happening to her and to her children. [And] what will become of [her] home?" [9]
The religious establishment's negative attitude to women's sports was manifested in a fatwa issued by senior Saudi cleric Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barak, who maintained that women's sports clubs should be banned. Thus, when asked for a ruling on this issue, he stated: "The foundations of shari'a and its emphasis on upholding the woman's honor and the purity of society prescribe that these clubs be banned. It is clear to anyone who understands the place of sports in the Muslim world as well as shari'a ordinances and laws that these clubs are one of the main factors in the Westernization of the Muslim woman and the corruption of Muslim society. Hence, the opening of such clubs would be improper; [it is] forbidden because they breed vice. A woman must always - even today - fulfill Allah's commandment [to women] - as Allah commanded the Prophet's wives: 'And stay in your houses' [Koran 33:33].
"As for the arguments offered by several [advocates] of such clubs - that some women go out on the rooftops to exercise [such that gyms would be a lesser evil], the answer is that a sin committed by a minority of women should not be redressed by a greater sin, which [in this case] would be tantamount to opening the door for women throughout Saudi Arabia to leave [their homes].
"It is well known that these clubs do not cause all women to engage in sports, but only a small part who [actually] take part in competitions, while the rest watch and cheer… It is also known that these clubs are appropriate only for those women whose sense of shame is either lacking or absent altogether.
"These clubs are nothing but playgrounds and amusement venues, and [the cause of] moral corruption… [for they], along with men's sports clubs, contribute to the degradation of the [Muslim] nation by wasting private and public funds on useless things…
"It is both inconceivable and incompatible with Islam that our nation, which is threatened by enemies, should promote amusement and play - [indeed,] this would gratify the enemies of the Muslims… Those who call to establish such clubs, and who like them, collude in [sowing] corruption, which these clubs have promoted in the past and will promote in the future…" [10]
Columnist for Islamic websites Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Azraq supported Al-Barak's fatwa and argued that it did not ban all women's sports activities, but only prohibited the establishment of competitive sports clubs for women. He said that Sheikh Al-Barak was not banning women from running a race against her husband, or from working out on a treadmill in her home. [11]
Saudi Cleric: Only Virgins Are Forbidden to Participate In Sports
In opposition to Sheikh Aal Al-Sheikh, member of the Council for Muslim Clerics Dr. 'Ali 'Abbas Al-Hakami sanctioned women's sports, saying it was a religious precept. He stated: "Women are undoubtedly permitted to participate in sports if the purpose is to keep healthy and enhance physical activity; more than that, this is a religious obligation. Sports is a means of keeping one's body healthy, which is a religious obligation. Our body is entrusted to us, and we must look after it and protect it from sickness, including obesity, diabetes and so on, which cannot be done in any other way except by watching our diet and doing sports."
Al-Hakami further stated, "There is nothing [in religious law] that precludes the opening of women's gyms, provided that they do not cause transgression, for example, by the mixing of men and women, the exposure of intimate body parts, or the violation of any other religious prohibition." [12]
Other clerics permitted women to engage in sports under certain conditions. Thus, member of the Saudi Council of Muslim Clerics Sheikh Dr. 'Abdallah bin Suleiman Al-Mani'i stated: "Religious law does not prohibit [all] women from engaging in sports, but only virgins… Some 'ulama and religious authorities hold that a girl who is still a virgin must not be allowed to participate in sports, lest her hymen be damaged." Al-Mani'i refrained from commenting specifically on the issue of separate sports clubs for women, stating that this must be ruled on by the Council of Muslim Clerics, the country's highest religious legislative authority. He added that women's participation in sports was a central element in the plan to corrupt the feminine virtue, and one of the central items on the agenda of those who promote Westernization and who seek to undermine the rule of Islam in Saudi Arabia. [13]
Dr. Muhammad bin Musa Al-Sharif, a researcher at the Islamic studies department of King 'Abd Al-'Aziz University in Jeddah, stated that religious law permitted women to engage in sports, albeit under the following five conditions: "That the type of sport [she chooses] is not one of those that doctors do not recommend [for women]; that it does not endanger women's health; that it won't cause a woman to expose her intimate body parts or won't cause her embarrassment by exposing these parts [accidentally]; that it is not competitive - [because] this might lead to enmity, foul language, and invective; that a woman be warned against modern sports clubs where women gather together and where their intimate body parts are exposed; and that a woman be warned against leaving her home alone under the pretext of going to a training session or jogging."
Al-Sharif went on to state: "If she wants to do these things, she must go with a male relative or with a group of women… It would be wrong to categorically prohibit women from engaging in sports, and it would be equally wrong to permit this unconditionally… The middle-of-the-road [approach] is a hallmark of Islam and the course taken by the believers." [14]
Saudi Columnist: Participating in Sports Will Help a Woman Find a Husband
Many Saudi columnists opposed the fatwas prohibiting women's sports, and argued that religious discussions of this issue were unnecessary. Columnist for the Saudi daily 'Okaz Muhammad bin 'Ali Al-Harafi maintained that Islam encouraged women to engage in sports, and that there was no need to wait for a fatwa in order to introduce physical education in schools: "A religious principle stipulates that a thing is permitted unless there is an explicit prohibition against it. Is it stated [anywhere] that girls are forbidden to [engage in] sports of any kind? I am not aware of such a text; conversely, I know a text that states the opposite. Our Prophet encouraged everyone - men and women alike - to engage in sports, and he [even] enumerated [the kinds of activities] popular during his time. Indeed, 'Omar bin Al-Khattab said: 'Teach your children archery, swimming, and horseback riding.' Everyone knows that the word 'children' means girls and boys.
"Isn't it obvious that young men are reluctant to marry fat girls? Only Mauritanian men still keep the old Arab tradition whereby a girl's status increases with her weight. Do [opponents of women's sports] want to send our girls to [Mauritania to find husbands]? Isn't it better to offer them [another] solution - sports?" [15]
Columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Watan Rakan Habib wrote: "When 'ulama meet these clubs with fatwas, it is as though we were saying to the future generations: 'We have failed in [rational] dialogue; we have failed in tolerance; and [we have failed] in honoring and accepting the other.' This will increase confusion in [our] society." [16]
Saudi Intellectual: Sports Clubs Prevent Disease
Saudi intellectual Halima Al-Muzafar also responded to Sheikh Al-Barak's claim that women's sports clubs and gyms would undermine tradition. She stated: "How will we shut the door on the [daily manifestations of] corruption stemming from the fact that young women have too much free time on their hands, suffer from unemployment, are not given jobs at universities, and remain single because of the trafficking in dowries and [for the sake of] preserving the purity of the tribe?"
In response to Sheikh Al-Barak's argument that sports clubs for women would be a waste of public funds, she wrote: "How much does it cost the state to treat women for serious illnesses associated with obesity?… Two-thirds of [Saudi women] suffer from obesity or osteoporosis… [Medical] treatment for two-thirds of Saudi Arabia's female population costs the country much more than opening women's sports clubs would." [17]
[1] www.islamonline.net, March 15, 2009.
[2] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), March 27, 2007.
[3] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), April 1, 2009.
[4] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), March 23, 2009.
[5] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), April 26, 2009.
[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 5, 2009.
[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 20, 2009.
[8] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 19, 2009.
[9] Al-Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), April 24, 2009.
[10] www.islamlight.net, April 16, 2009.
[11] http://almoslim.net, April 25, 2009.
[12] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 21, 2009.
[13] Al-Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), March 31, 2009.
[14] www.islamonline.ne t, March 15, 2009.
[15] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 5, 2009.
[16] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 10, 2009.
[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 15, 2009.
Source: http://www.memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD237709