In a country which is so restrictive for women, the fact that a female basketball even exists in Saudi Arabia is pretty phenomenal. Women in the Saudi kingdom are not allowed to vote, drive, or do anything in public (walk down the street, work, buy groceries etc) without a male guardian’s permission. However in a new ruling by King Abdullah in 2011, it seems women will have the right to vote and be elected to municipal councils as soon as 2015. So that’s promising.
But in the meantime, the oppression of women has forced this half of the population to think outside the box in terms of their freedom. Take for instance the news of the Jeddah United basketball team who are not only pursuing hoop dreams, but also using the sport as a platform to push for increased women’s rights.
Lina Almaeena started the first women’s basketball team in Saudi 11 years ago and in 2006 Jeddah United was formed and today is the only club which allows female players and members.
“We took it upon ourselves to really promote the sport at a time when it was a big time taboo … when there was a self-imposed censorship on women’s sports,” said Lina in a press release.
“Four years ago it was more of a taboo to talk about,” she told CNN in 2012. “Today, there’s more acceptance. There’s a lot more companies willing to support us. So, I really think as a society we are evolving.”
In a country where physical activities are not allowed for women, sports aren’t even offered to school girls, a team like this is surely an act of defiance.
Now the word about the team has spread so far that even women’s sports teams across the Arab world are popping up.
Lina Almaeena says basketball is becoming popular among Saudi girls because it offers the camaraderie of a team sport. Basketball is also seen as more societally acceptable since girls can practice in loose, conservative clothes, and the sport can be played indoors and outdoors.
In fact women and sports in Saudi Arabia have pretty much been non-existent, and it wasn’t until the London Olympics that women (two, to be exact) were allowed to compete for their country. Closer to home, women are restricted to female-only gyms, only play in front of women and men are not allowed anywhere near them.
There is a strong religious aspect to the restrictions of women in sport too. Well-known clerics have spoken out against sports like basketball, saying the exertion could tear a woman’s hymen and cause her to lose her virginity. Others argue that sports blur gender lines and make women more masculine.
In 2009 some photos of the female team not wearing appropriate covering attracted negative press and they were called “satanic”.
But the city of Jeddah is known to be more progressive and cosmopolitan than other Saudi areas, so it has become a hub where women are breaking free of traditions and creating spaces for themselves that didn’t exist before. Jeddah United even has American coaches helping the women play better and become a serious competitive team.
Organized sports, unlike what the clerics and naysayers declare it to be doing to women, actually teaches them teamwork, leadership skills and practical work and life skills.
“The concept of sports brings what we’re trying to teach. Leadership skills, role playing and how to manage your time,” said New York-born American coach Umar Abdul Salam, who has been training girls and boys in Jeddah for more than a decade. “You want to get good at something? Work for it.”
The profound effect this team is having on the younger generation of women is self-evident.
Hadeer Sadagah, 20, started playing eight years ago with Almaeena at Jeddah United. She now plays at the collegiate level for the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the sport,” she said. “It made me be more active in society, school and in studies. It made me more social. It made me confident.”
Not only does it help them socially, but it has also helped some young women conquer eating disorders and body image issues, which are topics that plague young women the world over. It is yet another example of why having an all-female sports team is a powerful symbol of hope to Saudi Arabian women.
“It really helped all these women. They went back to their normal lifestyle,” Lina Almaeena said. “We just looked at it as something not just from an entertainment point of view. It’s bigger than that.”
She also said she hoped the team’s example would help encourage public debate about women in sport, and demonstrate to “the opposing segments in society that we’re not going against our religious or cultural beliefs.”
“At the end of the day, we’re all law-abiding citizens who want to develop our youth,” she said. “We don’t want them to get into smoking and drugs and wasting their time.”
Jeddah United is the subject of a feature documentary because of their revolutionary view of women in sports in the Arab world, you can see the trailer below. Be sure to click on the closed captioning: