Women: Saudi Arabia, Islam and Sports

Saudi Arabia is revered as one of the strictest countries in the world when it comes to laws surrounding women. As an intensely conservative nation, women are effectively at the mercy of their male relatives – be it a brother, father or son – which stems from the country’s interpretation of Sharia Law. The most infamous aspect of all is perhaps the prohibition of females driving cars (despite the lack of a written rule) as well as women’s inabilities to open a bank account, travel out of the country or even be in possession of a passport without the permission of a male relative or husband. Even playing sport within schools isn’t permitted in public schools for fear of ‘immodesty’.

However, in the past week or so the Saudi Education Ministry announced that they were introducing PE lessons for girls in the curriculum of public schools this coming academic year. This has come as a shock to many and can be seen as out of line with the Saudi’s deeply conservative view that physical education is immodest and inappropriate for females to participate in. Thus, the announcement that PE lessons would be included in the curriculum for girls is something that some female activists (among others) suspected would never happen, so it really is a huge step in the right direction for Saudi Arabia.

Another matter which is making sport more readily available to Muslim women, and more specifically those who wear the hijab, has come from the West. Nike, a thoroughly western company and one of the largest competitors in their market, announced in March 2017 that they have successfully designed their first sports hijab, set to release in early 2018.

Their website is highly informative about this new venture and explains the journey of designing the hijab. The company has clearly taken feedback very seriously from those who tested the prototype hijabs – Middle Eastern athletes such as Amna Al Haddad (a female weightlifter) and Zahra Lari (figure skater) were key in the production.

Yet they have still faced backlash for only now deciding to release such an item – after all, Nike has been around since 1964; Muslim women and sports respectively even longer. Although I agree that this demonstrates just how underrepresented women in the Middle East have been in recent decades, I strongly feel that this is a good step: better late than never, as the saying goes. At then end of the day, Nike are not only diversifying the world of sport in the Middle East but they are also contributing a huge amount to bringing countries and cultures together by releasing a sports hijab.

Reflecting on the reception of this in the media, I have come to the conclusion that everyone was shocked by the mergence of such polar cultures – one known for the oppression of women and their bodies, the other for the empowerment of such matters. No matter how many people disagree with the release of the hijab or the context in which it is released, I really feel that it is bringing the world together – in international as well as cultural terms.

“By providing Muslim athletes with the most groundbreaking products, like the Nike Pro Hijab, Nike aims to serve today’s pioneers as well as inspire even more
women and girls in the region who still face barriers and limited access to sport: Fewer than one in seven girls participate in locally recommended
sport activities for 60 minutes or more.”

(from their website, here)

What better place to start than with two sides of the world who have traditionally been known to grate against one another? I really hope that this allows Muslim women to gain more and more chances to participate in sport whilst sustaining their commitment to Islam. Ultimately, Nike are just trying to empower people – regardless of sex, religion or race – one product at a time, and all we can do is applaud them for taking the initiative.

{look out for a new post in which I hope to explore further into the history of the hijab and why it is worn later on this summer}

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